Stage & Dance

Big daddy from big sky country

This week, Lexington theater-goers will reap the benefits of a 40-year-old graduate-student project that went very well.

The Lexington Opera House is presenting the Montana Repertory Theatre's production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

This is the second time Montana Rep has visited Lexington. The company was behind last year's production of Lost in Yonkers, which received an enthusiastic response from theatergoers.

But, Montana?

No offense to Big Sky Country, but it is not exactly the first of the 50 states to pop into your mind when you think theater.

”We are a professional training company based at the University of Montana, where students assume some of the supporting roles and Equity actors are in the leads,“ Montana Rep artistic director Greg Johnson said from his office in Missoula. By Equity, he means members of Actors Equity, the professional stage actors union. ”Our mission is to tell the great American stories.“

Touring with the classics

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Montana Rep is that it tours plays, not musicals — the staples of most touring Broadway series — and has success doing it.

”It's hard to find producers of fine, quality drama productions that are touring on a consistent basis,“ says Luanne Franklin, managing director of the Lexington Opera House.

Johnson says, ”We and the Acting Company out of Juilliard are the only companies out there doing this.“

In Montana, the company presents a season of shows for local residents. It also produces one show, a classic American title, to tour from January to April or May.

”When I got here, in 1990, we were mainly touring to east Washington, Idaho and Wyoming,“ Johnson said.

The company has since expanded its reach. A national map of its tour stops is now dominated by Eastern and Midwestern cities.

Cat has wide appeal

Picking the show is an important part of the process, Johnson says, to make sure that the company has a title that theaters are going to want to book.

”You're trying to hit the zeitgeist bull's-eye,“ Johnson says. Of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he says, ”It seemed to be a very timely play. People today are responding to messages of compassion and understanding, of the mendacity of the powerful and lies we tell ourselves.“

Cat, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1955, takes place on a turbulent night at a Mississippi plantation. A wealthy man, Big Daddy, is dying of cancer, unbeknownst to him. One of his sons and a daughter-in-law, Maggie, are trying to get his fortune.

Maggie is trying to shake her husband, former high school football star Brick, out of an alcoholic stupor and general anger at the world so that he can claim what she thinks is rightfully his.

”It's essentially Maggie and Brick's story, about this incredible woman who will not give up on her man,“ says Johnson, who directed this production.

Playing Maggie is New York-based actor and playwright Heather Benton, who has credits from regional companies around the country. Johnson thinks he got lucky when actor, director and playwright Eddie Levi Lee, a Kentucky native, called and said he had always wanted to play Big Daddy. Lee's credits include regional theaters across the country, including Actors Theatre of Louisville, TV roles on In the Heat of the Night and Northern Exposure, and writing plays including Wuthering! Heights! The! Musical!

Group returning next year

In addition to hitting that ”zeitgeist bull's-eye,“ Johnson says, another key to success for the touring company is repeat business.

He can add Lexington to the list. Franklin says Montana Rep will be on Broadway Live's 2008-09 season, although she declined to name the show. The Opera House traditionally announces its season in late spring.

”We were thrilled to get into Lexington,“ says Johnson, who says he came through the Opera House a couple of times when he was working with touring shows out of New York before he went to Montana Rep. ”It is a great theater for plays.“

And local audiences have been up for plays, at least this year. The Broadway Live season opened with 12 Angry Men, featuring former ­Waltons star Richard Thomas.

Franklin says, ”12 Angry Men was extremely well-received here, and our audience was really excited to hear Montana Rep was coming back.“

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