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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" continues through February 6 at the Andrews Theatre

I have never seen a less sentimental rendering of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof than the one currently on the stage of the Andrews Theatre, under the auspices of the Irish Classical Theatre Company. Greg Natale has delivered a smart and searing production, in which the conflicting desires of the characters collide in a shower of theatrical sparks.

Act One of this play about a family living with among the towering lies they tell themselves and each other always and forever must belong to Maggie the cat, played here with focus and restraint by Diane Curley. Indeed, Miss Curley does take possession of the first act here as she successfully delineates the battle lines of the entire play with nearly surgical precision. She needs her husband, Brick, to make love to her, with every connotation of the word “need.” She is a sexual woman who is being neglected; she loves this man who has turned on her and craves his affection and approval; and finally, she needs to conceive a child with him, or she runs the risk of being cut out of her father-in-law Big Daddy’s spectacularly rich estate. Curley never loses sight of this trajectory. She is a woman with a purpose.

Of the Maggies I have seen—Kathleen Turner, Mary Stuart Masterson, Buffalo’s Maureen Porter (in a co-production staged by BET and WIT at the old Irish Classical space on Chippewa), Cheryl Kenan (in the chaotically directed 1997 Studio Arena production best remembered for Ron L. Matthews, stripped to the waist as Brick), Anika Noni Rose (with an African-American cast featuring James Earl Jones as Big Daddy), and of course Elizabeth Taylor in the film—Curley’s performance most closely resembles Masterson’s in its calculating intelligence and well considered plotting.

By contrast, her husband, Brick, played by Neal Moeller, is a man in a willful fog. Brick does not care if he loses his inheritance. Blaming Maggie for the death of his best friend and resentful at her recognition of the homosexual dimension of that relationship, he has come to despise his wife’s very voice and presence. He tunes her out as best he can as he waits for the “click” indicating a state of peace that he knows will come from drinking enough whiskey. Moeller skillfully navigates this descent, and becomes so successfully opaque that we fully understand Big Daddy’s explosive frustration with him.

Dan Walker is a shrewd and unkind Big Daddy. This is a man awakening from what he believes was a temporary setback. He suspected that he was dying of cancer, and when the family lies, telling him that he has a clean bill of health, a lie told less as a kindness than as a strategy to buy time to maneuver for shares of his wealth, he reemerges like a monster waking from hibernation. The cruelty with which he hurls hateful abuse at Big Mama, the loyal wife he abhors, inspired laughter from the opening night audience that made me uncomfortable. What could they be laughing at? This man is a horror! (If I have one hesitation with the production, it is the modulation of the comic moments—Brick’s ineffectual but violent swing at Maggie, inspiring her retort, “Missed me!” fails to generate enough violence to earn a laugh.) And yet, in this Big Daddy, or more specifically in Walker’s performance, we see echoes of each of the other characters. We see Maggie’s desire to determine her fate. We see Brick coming to terms with the hand life has dealt him. We see the older son, Gooper, and his monstrously fertile wife, Mae, striving to earn all that Big Daddy possesses, if not his love or approval. If Act One belongs to Curley as Maggie, the second belongs to Walker as Big Daddy. From there, control splinters in all the best ways as Tennessee Williams takes us toward his satisfyingly unresolved conclusion.

The other performances in the mix are similarly fine. Sheila McCarthy walks the fragile balance between pathos and buffoonery with her Big Mama. She, perhaps most of all, is a reflection of the husband who does not love her—right down to her efforts to impersonate him and mimic his language when she realizes what Gooper and Meg are up to. The performance is achingly perfect.

Kelly Ferguson-Moore is delicious as the palpably dreadful Sister Woman, Meg. She waddles onto the stage in an absurd satin maternity dress (thank you, costume designer Dixon Reynolds) and smugly begins to take control. She is the Southern Gothic equivalent of Chekhov’s Natasha from Three Sisters, the selfish and unfeeling sister-in-law from hell, who bosses everyone and cares only about her own children. Ferguson-Moore’s performance is a highlight among many highlights. When Eric Rawski, as Gooper, turns to her and almost helplessly pleads, “You just won’t let me do this the nice way, will you?” simultaneously emphasizing his weakness and their joint ruthlessness, we feel both his pain and his sense of awe. Like Ferguson-Moore, Rawski successfully imbues an overtly comical character with reality and substance.

Doug Crane as the minister, Jim Maloy as Big Daddy’s physician, and Carol McGuire as Trixie, the only representative of Gooper and Meg’s brood of children, support the power and essence of the production.

I admired the set by Ron Schwartz, which makes excellent use of the circular Andrews Theatre stage, emphasizing the exposed permeability of Maggie and Brick’s bedroom, while handing director Natale an immediacy and intimacy that serves the production beautifully. Dixon Reynolds’ costumes evoke and highlight each character in this capable and entertaining production.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues through February 6 at the Andrews Theatre (625 Main Street/853-ICTC).