It's a safe bet that one of the very first performances of the season will almost certainly live on as the best of the season, because it's hard to imagine any other actor outshining Benjamin Stewart's Big Daddy in Actors Theatre's production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Stewart's is a rafters-shaking revelation of a performance worthy of Tennessee Williams' famous family drama, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1955.
Although the story revolves around Brick and the mysterious relationship with his deceased friend Skipper, the play really belongs to Maggie and her father-in-law, Big Daddy, a Mississippi plantation owner who we meet on the occasion of his 65th birthday. The assembled partyers are also toasting Big Daddy's recent close call with cancer, which he believes he's beaten. But has he? And why is Brick, a former pro footballer who appears to have it all, slowly drinking himself to death? Why won't he sleep with his tempestuous and sex-mad wife, Maggie? Why has Skipper's recent death rattled Brick so?
The answers arrive soon enough, but not before some terrible revelations, several of them provided by Maggie, who prowls the stage, growling with pent-up fury. She's Maggie the Cat, she tells us repeatedly, and she's not going to let Big Daddy's inheritance, which he dangles like a carrot, go to Brick's dreary brother, Gooper. She spends much of this auspicious evening cajoling Big Daddy and berating her weak husband about his peculiar affection for his dead pal with Williams' magnificent monologues.
Natalie Messersmith's performance is certainly attractive in its own right, but it's a performance cut from a different cloth from the others on this stage. Playing more broadly than her co-stars, she shows us very little of the vulnerability that's presumably keeping Maggie tied to her hopeless husband, focusing instead on Maggie's fierce determination to rise above her meager beginnings. Jason Kuykendall steers clear of matinee-idol hamminess and plays Brick as he's written: a brooding, fractured failure, revered by everyone in his life but courting death with booze and reckless behavior.
Director Matthew Wiener takes an efficient, emotionally remote approach to Cat, often facing his principals into the audience and away from one another. It's an unfortunate blot on an otherwise sensitive work with a remarkable cast, most of whom have a moment or two of their own in the spotlight. I found Pamela Fields' whiny Big Mama somehow lacking, but Gooper's every contemptuous glare reflected Gene Ganssle's years of comic practice. Debra K. Stevens plays sister-in-law Mae as arch and prettily comic, a curious interpretation that pleased the audience.
This handsome cast all but vanishes when Stewart tromps onto Jeff Thomson's dramatic, theatrical set, which places the play in some ethereal Mississippi Delta where floors are piled with Turkish rugs and doorways are cut from vast, sweeping curtains. Stewart's Big Daddy is equal parts corn-pone comedian and patronizing patriarch, a blustery bully who has checked his Southern gentlemanly charm at the door to Brick and Maggie's boudoir. Stewart plays every moment for all he's worth, thrusting his fantastically melodic voice into the highest balcony, waggling his impossible eyebrows and giving the word "liar," which he hollers like a wounded animal, at least a half-dozen syllables. It's a moment that encapsulates the melodramatic, nostalgic pleasures of this play, a treasure brought to life by a powerful cast and galvanized by a single stunning performance.
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