The sense of the two key couples in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” as refracted mirror images of off-kilter marriages, each with its own survival strategy, comes across with illuminating lucidity in the Hartford Stage revival, the latest in the Connecticut company’s ongoing exploration of the Tennessee Williams canon. In his sixth Williams staging as Hartford a.d., Michael Wilson’s vigorous, intelligent handle on this still-crackling drama of family conflict comes as a refreshing reprieve from the playwright’s recent Broadway mishandlings, which have been harpooned by perverse auteurial imprints or inert star turns.
Among the chief points of interest here is the casting of Elizabeth Ashley, an even more seasoned veteran of Williams’ work than director Wilson, and a celebrated interpreter of Maggie in a 1974-75 Broadway revival of “Cat.” Thirty years on, Ashley graduates from the wily feline, refusing to acknowledge marital defeat or to have her power usurped within the family, to the far more pathetic but no less resilient matriarch, Big Mama.
With her breathless two-packs-a-day rasp, Ashley brings an earthy ripeness to the raunchy old gal, boisterously yanking the startled preacher off his feet into her ample lap; at the same time, she makes a poignant, at times emotionally wrenching figure of this fluttery, deluded woman. Yet Ashley’s innate toughness also injects blood and conviction into Big Mama’s willingness to rationalize even the cruelest of dismissals from her husband, quietly and often amusingly underlining her station as the true backbone of a family headed by a hard man absorbed in his work.
Alyssa Bresnahan virtually sings and dances her way through Maggie’s demanding first act with a physicality that suggests the actress and Wilson may be interpreting her role of a territorially threatened cat in heat a little too literally. When Brick (James Colby) raises a chair to ward her off like a lion tamer, the aggressive measure seems entirely justified.
Prowling, preening and posing, Bresnahan cajoles her way around the wall of scorn and indifference built by Brick. With her uninterrupted motoring and gesticulating, her pirouettes and triumphalist kicks, her tireless pouncing on and off the lonely bed that dominates Jeff Cowie’s stately shuttered bedroom set, the actress seems almost to be paying balletic homage to Tom Cruise’s recent spin on “Oprah.”
But despite its theatrical flourishes, the performance has a command that eventually wins out, at first in the glimpses Bresnahan allows into her love-starved character’s longing and fear, but especially as the drama evolves and Maggie’s feverish restlessness gives way to a more poised form of cunning and indomitable resolve.
This cat seems undeniably dangerous but is most effective when her claws are hidden. In costumer David C. Woolard’s slinky slip and stylish cocktail dresses, thesp certainly looks sufficiently alluring to substantiate Maggie’s boasts about her ongoing ability to turn heads.
James Colby’s Brick is a fine physical match for the handsome former football player turning soft with alcohol and self-disgust following the death of his beloved friend Skipper. Like his onstage wife, the actor’s take on the role grows steadily in stature.
Colby’s Brick shrinks quietly into himself with sullen hostility through much of the first act, hobbling around on his broken ankle and burying himself in the bourbon bottle until Maggie’s relentlessness goads him to bracingly violent outbursts. In the second act’s expertly played father-son faceoff, he becomes more emotionally volatile when confronted by Big Daddy (William Biff McGuire), whose intolerance for mendacity extends to Brick’s dishonesty with himself.
Less physically imposing and blustery than many memorable actors in the role, McGuire plays the Mississippi Delta plantation owner as a flinty man of steely will and self-possession, vulgar but somewhat joyless, and bitterly aware of his own mortality. His refusal to temper Big Daddy’s callousness by favoring the natural humor in Williams’ colorful dialogue makes his bluntness even more brutal.
This is evident not just in the devastating verbal blows he casually delivers to Big Mama, but in the way he tosses the truth at Brick about his role in Skipper’s death and his cowardice in not facing his own demons.
It’s especially remarkable, then, that McGuire is able to locate the pathos in such a harsh characterization when Brick retaliates by slapping Big Daddy with the carefully hidden truth about his terminal cancer. Solid as the entire cast is, McGuire and Ashley are its standouts.
While the very classical production in no way makes for a revelatory or transcendent staging, director Wilson shows a thorough understanding of each of the characters and their thorny interactions, his sharp orchestration of the ensemble underlining the writing’s superbly balanced craftsmanship.
The symbiosis of Maggie and Brick’s marriage with that of Big Daddy and Big Mama is deftly outlined. Both dysfunctional couples are given an integrity that makes even more glaring the exposure as mercenary vultures of unctuous elder son Gooper (Bill Kux) and his avaricious breeding-machine wife, Mae (Natalie Brown). This is especially so as they square off for control of the estate with increasing brazenness in the unforgiving third act.
(The almost operatic breakdown of the play’s three acts is here enhanced by Rui Rita’s descriptive lighting: Casting a buttery glaze over Maggie’s teasing solo assault in act one; releasing fireworks in act two; darkening as the thunderous storm descends for the closer, aided by John Gromada’s work on sound.)
And if the more poetic flights of Williams’ rumination on life under the cloud of death here seem somewhat more grounded in all the characters save for Maggie, that, too, is in keeping with her role as the play’s most guileful fabricator of deceptions — to save her appearance, her marriage and the inheritance that will keep her at a safe distance from the humble roots of her past.