'Gimme another drink and I'll tell you'


It's a distant abstraction for most, but a bleary, never-ending nightmare for others.

Among them, at least in the world of fiction, is Brick Pollitt, one of the lead characters in Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," currently staged for your viewing pleasure at OSF's Angus Bowmer Theatre.

I was fortunate enough to score tickets to "Cat" this past weekend. I accompanied a friend whose rosy view of the world took quite a battering at Williams' depressive hands.

To most reviewers, "Cat" lives and/or dies on Maggie "the Cat" Pollitt. The actress charged with Maggie carries the play through most of its intense first act, ushering the audience into a decaying world of pseudo-antebellum society you'd almost pine for if it wasn't so causally racist and intellectuality stunted.

And as amazing — and smoking hot — as Stephanie Beatriz is in the OSF production, my mind keeps drifting back to Brick.

In a way, Brick is a walking cliche. A former football great, turned closeted homosexual, he descends into the bottle to deal with his repressed sexuality and the death of his possible boyfriend Skipper.

All this remains vague, of course. There's no hard evidence in the text that Brick and Skipper ever skipped off to Palm Springs for a weekend of fun and sun while Maggie dodged the venomous hedonism of Brick's family.

You can argue the play infers a different reality, but it's just as likely Brick just really, really, really, really dug his main dude and is broken up over his death.

What fascinates me about Brick is not so much his inner struggle, but how he chooses to mute the demonic voices ripping him apart from within.

He drinks. A lot.

By a lot, I mean constantly.

His descriptions of the power of booze echo through literary history. He pounds bourbon like it's Hi-C until he hears a "click" in his head that lets him know he is prepared to deal with whatever awfulness the world has in store for him that day.

It's the same reasoning my grandfather used to articulate his feelings on alcoholism.

"Chris," he once told me, "when I get home from work and I take that first drink of beer, I feel better. I actually, physically feel better."

Ol' grandad. Dead of liver cirrhosis now these 20 long years.

What I respected most about OSF's "Cat" was the performance of Danforth Comins as Brick.

I'm not an actor, but it's gotta be tough to play a drunk. If it was easy, more actors would do it effectively.

Film and stage history is littered with normally talented actors who completely blow it when the script calls them to play hammered.

You start with Otis Campbell from the "Andy Griffith Show" and go from there. Otis walks on the screen and the audience guffaws at his lovable site gags and swinging, sweaty jowls, but in reality town drunks are mean, angry booze hogs who'd as soon stomp you into a mud puddle and beat your dog with a tennis racket as look at you.

Then you have the too giggly drunk girl, the too slurry speech performance and others.

None of this is accurate.

The fact is, most people don't act that much different when they're wasted. If you're a pushy, opinionated moron sober, you're certainly one when you're drunk. The booze just enhances your natural character.

Comins' work in "Cat" is impressive because he finds Brick's stagnant soul, the id of a spoiled rich boy with no worldly outreach beyond his high school buddies and his college campus.

Brick's reality is one of cause and reward. I throw the football; I get a touchdown. I pound a highball; I feel better.

Drunks don't have inner monologues. Well, they do, but they last all of 40 minutes per day before the effects of booze take hold and quiets all that down to a dull buzz.

But an unchanging character is uninteresting. So what is the talented actor to do when playing a morose ball of Play-Doh like Brick?

He subtly alters the character's physical appearance to manifest the inner struggle that ain't happening. Comins pulls this off brilliantly and I can't for the life of me figure out how the hell he did it.

At one point in the play, one of his ears actually begins to droop lower than the other. I swear. How do you make an ear droop? Or at least how do you set your body to make it appear that way? Comins does it and turns Brick into a dynamic character who is more interesting than Maggie or Big Daddy — the play's flagship verbal virtuoso — because of what he doesn't say.

Comins' Brick appears to wilt from the inside out as the play scratches toward it's bitter, bitter end, despite his descent into hammered bliss.

If I were to compare Comins' work in "Cat" with another modern fictional booze house it would be Jon Hamm's work in the "Mad Men" TV series. Hamm's Don Draper wears the guise of the alpha male ad exec in 1962 New York while riding a tide of pricey bourbon and non-filter cigarettes.

The secret is the eyes. Hamm lets his eyes show the toll fire water takes on the soul. They are slightly watery and a bit hollow.

From my vantage point in the M section of the Angus Bowmer Theatre I couldn't see Comins' eyes, but I'll bet they looked a lot like ol' grandad's.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.

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