In Mark Lamos’ charged production of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the Kennedy Center, forces of nature figure prominently. Just outside the opulent bedroom of unhappily married Maggie (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Brick (Jeremy Davidson), dogs howl, birds screech, and lightning storms descend with such swift fury that you wonder what has gone on in that plantation house to trigger such godlike retribution.
The animals and summer squalls have nothing on Maggie and her father-in-law, Big Daddy (George Grizzard), the magnificently overbearing patriarch of the Southern plantation where Mr. Williams’ story of ambition and disgust unfolds.
Maggie is a tempest in a tea gown. Stalking her turf — the bedroom — in high heels, she bristles with sarcasm, ambition and squelched lust. Every word that tumbles from her pretty mouth is a needle.
Big Daddy, on the other hand, fills every room he occupies to bursting with the outsize of his personality and the hollering of his will to be heard, obeyed and reckoned with. He is what Maggie would be like on a diet of cut glass.
One of the pleasures of Mr. Lamos’ take on “Cat” is how he draws out the parallels between Maggie and Big Daddy, how they are cut of the same cloth. Both were born poor and raised poor and are hidebound determined never again to want for money.
They are similar in other ways, too. Big Daddy is married to Big Mama (Dana Ivey), a brood hen who seems dimwitted until you cross her. He hasn’t loved her for years, any affection having soured to rancor years ago.
As for Maggie, her brooding, sexually ambivalent hunk of a husband, Brick, refuses to sleep with her. He makes love to the liquor bottle and leaves her ripe and neglected. Not only does this make Maggie feel frustrated, but it also thwarts her plan to produce an heir and secure the family fortune — leaving Brick’s brother Gooper (T. Scott Cunningham) and his ridiculously fecund wife, Mae (Emily Skinner), in the dust.
Maggie’s dissatisfaction, Brick’s death by boozing and Gooper’s greed all come to a head at Big Daddy’s 65th birthday party, an occasion made even more festive because he also appears to have beaten death. Big Daddy has been told he doesn’t have cancer after all; whether that announcement is true seems almost immaterial in the light of the effect the news has on him. For a brief moment, he is reborn, full of fight and fire and a lust to tell the brutal, profane truth. For one night, there are no secrets, no whisperings.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is often thought to be Maggie the Cat’s play, the feline pounce and casual cruelty of her character recalling a cat toying with a freshly caught mouse. Miss Masterson may capture the skittishness and on-edge aspects of Maggie’s personality, but the erotic languor is missing.
Without that powder-keg passion, Maggie becomes merely uptight and aggressive, a purely external force that keeps our empathy at bay. With a not-so-strong Maggie, “Cat” belongs to the biggest tom of them all, Big Daddy. Mr. Grizzard’s gritty, towering portrayal of Big Daddy commands the stage from the first moment. Like his character, Mr. Grizzard holds onto the audience with bare fists and never lets us out of his grasp.
Miss Ivey’s Big Mama proves a worthy adversary and partner to Mr. Grizzard’s Big Daddy, her character both flighty and formidable, while Miss Skinner provides welcome comic relief as the sharp-minded, eternally pregnant Mae.
Another unexpected turn in “Cat” is how this production also allows you to see the parallels between Brick and Big Daddy.
In many stagings, Brick is a slouchy, alcoholic loser, but Mr. Davidson plays him as someone perhaps taking a “liquor vacation,” someone who may be as canny and brusquely perceptive as Big Daddy. A rare camaraderie surfaces in their big showdown, in which Big Daddy tries to find out why Brick is drinking and punishing Maggie, and Brick ducks and dances like a prizefighter.
After the gothic fireworks of the Tennessee Williams festival’s first offering, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” you wish “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” similarly broke new ground. The production doesn’t transform the Kennedy Center, but Mr. Grizzard’s outstanding performance shows there’s more than one way to skin this “Cat.”
WHAT: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” by Tennessee Williams
WHERE: Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through July 4.
TICKETS: $25 to $75
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS