Oh, the mendacity.
The lies and half-truths, insults and schemes are flying high again as Baltimore Center Stage opens its season with a revival of the tense Tennessee Williams drama “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
The handsome-looking production, briskly guided by Tony Award-winning actress and director Judith Ivey, exerts a steady pull. Although a few portrayals could use fine-tuning, the cast digs into the savory text with a vigor that produces a consistent spark.
That spark can’t zap away the play’s fundamental flaw. Given the pronounced homophobia of his day, Williams understandably vacillated about the gay theme threaded through the plot, a theme toned down for the 1955 Broadway premiere (toned way down for the subsequent movie version).
But even the 1974 revision used by Center Stage, an edition prepared by Williams that restores many of the cut lines, doesn’t entirely satisfy. It still leaves things unsettled or unsaid regarding the pivotal, fatal friendship between the alcoholic Brick and his best friend, Skipper. For me, the final curtain, in particular, remains problematic.
Regardless, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” has the stamp of genius all over it, and the opportunity to savor this rich theatrical tapestry again is most welcome. The piece has so much to tell us and warn us about, even in our day, as it peels away the facade of a rich Southern family gathering for the 65th birthday of its patriarch, Big Daddy.
His favorite son, Brick, nurses a drink and a foot injury (caused by attempting to recapture past athletic glory). Brick’s wife, Maggie, shunned by her husband, tries to rekindle or repair what she can. Other family members circle and swoop, cling and sting.
That old human shortcoming — a failure to communicate — is very much at the heart of the matter, along with its close relation, an aversion to the truth. “Mendacity is a system that we live in,” Brick says. “Liquor is one way out, and death’s the other.”
Mortality hangs in the humid air inside and outside the grand Mississippi home, where the family’s past, present and far-from-certain future collide. It will take more than a thunderstorm to clear that air.
In this terrific-looking revival, with its spot-on set (Adam Koch) and costumes (Joseph Aulisi), Stephanie Gibson strikes dynamic notes of sexiness, neediness, regret and determination as Maggie.
If her approach sometimes feels calculated, Gibson does stirring work in the play’s key emotional moments, especially delivering Maggie’s impassioned description of the Brick-Skipper friendship as a “love that could never be carried through to anything satisfying or even talked about plainly.”
As the ever-imbibing Brick, Andrew Pastides deftly provides the vacant eyes, brusque manner, and halfhearted laughter of someone determined to keep reality at bay.
The portrayal could use more nuance around the edges, more variety of vocal inflections. Still, the actor leaves his mark, nowhere more so than in the scene when Brick bristles at the mere idea that his father, that anyone, might think him gay.
Making that scene all the more potent is David Schramm’s sterling performance as larger-than-life, unfettered and strangely insightful Big Daddy, who “always … lived with too much space around me to be infected by the ideas of other people.” Schramm fully inhabits the role, makes you believe Big Daddy’s every blustery, blistering line.
Adding deft and endearing support is Charlotte Booker as long-suffering Big Mama. She tears up the scenery in the best possible way, letting you see how deep the character’s scars are, how frayed the illusions — and how deep the love.
The rest of the cast proves effective. Not sure, though, why Jim Ireland plays Doc Baugh as such a whiny, flighty guy.
Also not sure about the periodic use of bright, tango-inflected music in the production. It sounds as if it were meant for another play entirely.
If you go
"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" continues through Oct. 14 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $25 to $74. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org.