CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF: This one has Lyric honcho Spiro Veloudos as a touchingly humane Big Daddy.
Tennessee Williams was famous for depending on the kindness of strangers. He might better have depended on the acuity of Scott Edmiston, whose deft and gauzy melding of recently discovered Williams one-acts resulted in the Elliot Norton Award–winning Five by Tenn. Now Edmiston gets into the ring with one of the heavyweights: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the 1955 Pulitzer Prize winner in which Williams uttered the love that dares not speak its name. The result is a solid if not transcendent Lyric Stage Company revival (through March 14), the biggest surprise of which is Lyric honcho and sometime hambone Spiro Veloudos's touchingly humane take on Big Daddy, a vulgar, vigorous titan of the Mississippi Delta whose much-trumpeted power has been significantly sapped by disease.
As the program points out, Cat's first life was as the 1952 short story "Three Players of a Summer Game," which related the alcohol-fueled collapse of young planter Brick Pollitt. By the time Williams and director Elia Kazan had brewed the material into a play, the sodden Brick had taken a back seat to his lustily moribund dad and determined, sexually frustrated wife, Maggie — who likens her situation to that of the uncomfortable feline of the title. The occasion is wealthy plantation baron Big Daddy's 65th birthday, which is also the date of receipt of results of a recent battery of medical tests to determine whether the patriarch is soon to be pushing up daisies or humping the whore of his dreams from, in his words, "hell to breakfast." Present for the party/prognosis are Brick and Maggie (the former temporarily crippled by a drunken attempt to relive past athletic glory), lovingly bulldozing matriarch Big Mama, and less-favored eldest son Gooper, backed by his pregnant wife, Mae, and a burgeoning brood of "no-neck monsters."
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is not, as critic Brooks Atkinson dubbed it, "Williams's finest drama." Despite its brave hauling of the destructive power of unacknowledged homosexuality to the forefront, the play harbors an undercurrent of revulsion at female sexuality that borders on misogyny and has always given me the creeps. Do we really need not one but two men whose willing wives give them the carnal heebie-jeebies? Moreover, the character of Brick is underwritten: he's a gimp cipher in silk pajamas nursing a secret guilt and adamantly awaiting the oblivion-inducing "click" that alcohol delivers.
But the play's theme of "mendacity" — so abhorred by Brick and Big Daddy, a tough character who can stand up to any truth but his own ebbing — is a potent one. And the larger-than-life characters of Maggie and Big Daddy, arguable monsters compassionately limned, are something to tip your hat to. In fact, for all their thinly masked greed and imperviousness to truth, Cat's characters (with the exception of fecund, grasping Mae and the medical and ministerial factotums) are humanely as well as humorously drawn. The catty wit does not emanate from Maggie alone.
At the Lyric, on Janie E. Howland's gold-and-peachy-toned boudoir opening onto a veranda increasingly lit by a Delta moon, Edmiston underlines the intrusive character of the Pollitt family, with Cheryl McMahon's Big Mama and Mae's cap-pistol-wielding brats thundering through like Sherman's army. Mellow, slinky jazz horns introduce the action — which will turn out to be neither mellow nor slinky, the play's final seduction more a hostile takeover of the weak by the strong than a soft surrender.
Statuesque Georgia Lyman (a friend) takes on the iconic role originated by Barbara Bel Geddes, played by Elizabeth Taylor in the watered-down 1958 film, and memorably essayed by megawatt sirens Elizabeth Ashley and Kathleen Turner. Lyman is a tough, calculating, even febrile Maggie — though more of the vulnerability of the once-confident vixen whose husband loathes her might be in order (along with the frank sexuality that made one critic describe Ashley's cat as "vaginal"). An underplayed Big Daddy would be like a trickling Niagara, so that term can hardly be applied to Veloudos. But Edmiston solicits from the actor a rasping, perspiring performance in which there is as much tired raging against the dying of the light as there is crude, cruel bravado. Kelby Akin, a stony if sometimes incomprehensible Brick, isn't up to either Lyman or Veloudos, though he's very physically adroit; there is more of his character's stamina and defeat in the way he spars with and gets knocked off his crutches than there is in all his sulking. More heartbreaking is McMahon's Big Mama, a braying, bejeweled bull of a woman whose heart is as large as her husband's contempt.