‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’
Through April 24
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda
$30-60 (on Tuesdays all side section seats are $10)
You often hear the cry for new plays and fewer revivals. But after seeing a spate of area premieres, a familiar work is welcome, especially when it’s as beautifully executed as Round House Theatre’s production of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
From the top of the play, it’s evident that director Mitchell Hébert has given the production the care and heft due an American classic. There’s the opulent bedroom set with soaring ceiling and louvered shutters leading to the outside gallery, the fiery red delta light and the exciting sounds of a brass instrumental piece. And to tell the story written in the playwright’s matchless blend of lyrical and earthy language, he’s selected a capable cast of first-rate actors.
Set on a steamy Mississippi plantation, the play pits truth against misconception. Maggie, the titular cat, wants her disinterested husband to sleep with her. She needs a baby to ensure a big slice of the family fortune. Brick, an ex-football star drowning in alcohol, is mourning the death of his closest friend and teammate, Skipper. Many suspect the men were more than friends but Brick denies it vehemently explaining that when they shared hotel rooms on the road, their evenings always ended with a tender but manly handshake across the space that separated their beds.
Meanwhile Brick’s rich, imposing father Big Daddy, whose enormous fortune is at the center of Pollitt family squabbles, is dying of cancer but refuses to believe it. A hardworking former overseer, Big Daddy is tolerant despite his booming voice and rough exterior. He got his start in the world when the plantation’s former owners, a gay couple named Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, took him on as worker. After their death he became owner of 28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile, of which the audience is reminded again and again.
When “Cat” premiered on Broadway in 1955, its themes of repressed homosexuality were too much for some critics and not nearly enough for others. In spite or because of the then-racy material, “Cat” ran for nearly 700 performances and won Williams his second Pulitzer Prize.
Director Hébert, best known as a local actor, has infused the Round House production with fresh performances, humor and agile staging. He’s supported by a strong design team including Ivania Stack whose costumes are spot on ’50s fashion for the moneyed South. For a good part of the first act, Maggie wears the iconic white slip immortalized by a ravishing Elizabeth Taylor in the screen version.
In the play’s stage notes, Williams describes Maggie’s voice: “sometimes it drops low as a boy’s and you have a sudden image of her playing boy’s games as a child.” She’s now a sexy, fiercely ambitions woman who loves her husband and security. Talented local actor Alyssa Wilmoth-Keegan uncannily brings together the many aspects of Maggie.
Maggie hails from a genteel but impoverished family. The year of her Nashville debut, she had two gowns: one sewn by her mother and the other a castoff from a rich cousin. She was married in her grandmother’s wedding dress. A life of handed out remittance checks isn’t why she married Brick; she’s determined he stake his claim in Big Daddy’s estate.
Gregory Wooddell is perfectly cast as the handsome, unhappy, brooding Brick. Hobbling around on a crutch after injuring his foot jumping hurdles at the local track, Wooddell’s Brick passes through different stages of drunkenness — cool detachment with his wife to explosive anger and disgust when his father suggests that Brick was in love with Skipper.
Rick Foucheux’s nuanced performance as domineering Big Daddy is a standout, and out actor Sarah Marshall is delightful as Big Momma, a simple woman who dislikes locked doors and dimly lit rooms, but fiercely loves Big Daddy and Brick.
Todd Scofield is solidly convincing as Brick’s older brother Goober, a corporate lawyer and clearly the less-loved son. Marni Penning plays Goober’s petty wife Mae, mother of five with a sixth on the way. Penning’s is the angriest Mae I’ve encountered. Rounding out the cast are Tom Truck as the obsequious Rev. Tooker, whom Big Daddy barely tolerates, and Stephan Patrick Martin as matter-of-fact Doctor Baugh. And finally, three youths play some of Goober and Mae’s screeching brood that Maggie hilariously refers to as “the no-necked monsters.”