Get ready to toss a boot

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is Tennessee Williams’ third significant play, following “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” further establishing the author as a major voice on the Broadway stage and winning him a Pulitzer Prize.

The play concerns a young man named Brick’s descent into alcoholism following the death of his college friend and his wife’s efforts to make him stop drinking so that he can take over his dying father’s plantation. Although it has been criticized as being overly violent and maudlin, the second act, in which the father, Big Daddy, confronts Brick about the nature of his relationship with his friend Skipper, is considered a hallmark in contemporary drama. Encapsulated in one long and gripping scene, it depicts a profound relationship of mutual trust and respect. It’s the impetus of the show.

The current production of “Cat” by GW’s Department of Theatre and Dance is studded with characters whose skins are so thin, we can almost see their hearts throb and swell just beneath the surface. We look into their lives and feel what they feel. Or at least we should. While it may not lift any new layers from the already sheer veils of Williams’ characterizations, director Nate Garner’s production reminds us why it’s so easy to relate – whether we’d like to or not – to the Pollitt family.

Garner’s is a broad style of directing. It’s clear that he allows his actors some freedom to pursue their roles, though an argument could be made that tightening things up would better delineate the drama. A nimble conductor, he maintains at least the thematic flavor of Williams’ play. That said – and this is taking into account the fact that the current Broadway revival of “Cat” also missed the mark dramatically – this is a grueling show to endeavor, and the production now playing in the Betts Marvin Theatre fails to hit its theatrical stride.

Act One opens on Brick’s wife Maggie as she proceeds to dress herself and interact with the audience for the first 10 minutes or so. As Maggie, Leigh-Erin Balmer stalks the perimeter of the stage, prowling her dressing room and making attempts to connect with her husband. This could, unfortunately, serve as a metaphor for Balmer’s interpretation, which never registers with the audience. It’s all the more confounding knowing the capacity of her estimable talents. She smoldered in last year’s “Learning Curves,” but in “Cat,” her Maggie may as well be searching the room for her own personality. Balmer also tends to round off her vowels, undermining the Louisiana drawl that tints Williams’s dialogue. Indeed, it’s a balmy performance.

Brett Levanto, playing Brick, smartly carries the immense weight of a dysfunctional life on his shoulders; they hunch and droop like a worn sofa back. His verbal dynamics, on the other hand, seem to have two settings: diffidence and rage. His voice is either too combustible or altogether inaudible. Some shading would fill in the blanks considerably.

Act Two belongs to Big Daddy (Gerard Williams). He’s been diagnosed with a debilitating disease, and he must be portrayed with the air of a man who truly has been through it all. He is the driving force of the family, and the play’s turbine engine. So it is particularly dispiriting to watch Williams stiffly wander through the part in spite of his best efforts. Neither imposing nor frail, his Big Daddy is a mere slip of the man the author intended.

Thank goodness for the spunky Abby Marks. She invests juicy oscillations into Big Mama, who is more pivotal here than in most productions. Marks’ is the only principal accent satisfactorily assumed, and she boasts reserves of stage business that give the role pith and vim. When she’s on stage, “Cat” has a pulse and – more important – a heart.

Scenic designer David Robinson has constructed a visual paradox with this show. The dressing room only hints at the family’s plight. Maggie and Brick are trapped in a loveless marriage, so the setting should suggest the emotional claustrophobia that chafes yet forces them together. Instead, Robinson has removed the walls, which attractively opens the atmospherics up but also allows any intimacy and volatility to waft out of the large plantation windows like aired-out stuffiness. Turns out they were seriously load-bearing walls. Maya White’s lighting imbues the interiors with a muggy Southern pall, save for the strangely chosen shafts of turquoise lining the stage. But nothing can prepare the audience for the sudden thunderous sound cues that seem to come from above, like the PA system at Grand Central station.

Elizabeth Groth and Amanda Edgerton, the show’s costumer and stage manager, deserve the highest praise. The former’s designs, drawn in luscious crmes and clever tailoring, shrewdly befit every character. And Edgerton’s graceful oversight establishes that she’s an ideal right-hand (wo)man to Garner.

In all, this tinny wisp of Williams’s masterpiece feels like a warm-up course for understanding his brand of American theater. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is an important play and it deserves our attention. By that same token, it also deserves an attention to every detail of its production.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is playing from February 23-February 27 at 11:00 am- 2:00 pm and February 25-29, Wed.-Sat: 6:30 pm-7:30 pm and Sun: 1:00-2:00 pm at the Dorothy Marvin Betts Theater.

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