The Kennedy Center’s festival of plays by Tennessee Williams is proving to be a consistently high-level affair. Last month’s shimmering production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” is followed by a high-voltage version of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” that is likely to be remembered as much for the even luster of the Mark Lamos-directed ensemble as for the standout perfs of its leads.
Lamos achieves full exposure of the self-absorbed personalities that inhabit one of American theater’s most intriguingly dysfunctional clans. The lively production also seizes every available comedic opportunity, especially as the family members flail and stumble around John Lee Beatty’s spacious bedroom set.
Taking the principals in order, Mary Stuart Masterson is riveting as the high-strung and insecure Maggie, who dominates act one with her lyrical tirades. She is fully at ease with the role’s many nuances, especially its wit and sarcasm, which she piles on like thick Southern gravy. She is also physically right for the role, a captivating beauty in her satin slip and slinky dress by Jane Greenwood.
The object of her lust and frustration, remote husband Brick, is played with just the right amount of disdain and disinterest by Jeremy Davidson. A late addition to the cast, the handsome Davidson last was seen here in the solo play “Nijinsky’s Last Dance.” Davidson’s Brick is a fine portrait of repressed anger and guilt waiting to erupt.
Dana Ivey grabs the meaty role of Big Mama and holds on tight. At times touching and pathetic, Ivey’s Big Mama is a pitiable figure, especially as she endures and then stoically rationalizes her husband’s cruel personal diatribe.
Big Daddy’s fearsome presence is fully captured by George Grizzard. The veteran actor is every inch the bitter and bombastic plantation owner whose contempt for the mendacity surrounding him is matched only by his affection for a troubled son. Grizzard’s Daddy is eager for battle, exemplified by a swift kick that sends Brick’s crutch flying or a vicious rant against hypocrisy, greed and his lost marriage. His biggest fight is waged against the devil that possesses Brick, an encounter played sensitively by both Grizzard and Davidson.
Also enjoyable are T. Scott Cunningham as scheming brother Gooper and Emily Skinner as his vapid and perpetually pregnant wife, Mae. Together with their delightfully annoying brood of no-neck monsters, they deserve every epithet hurled their way by the dying patriarch.