In Heat

Stacia Rice as Maggie: Flittering, acerbic, and fantastic

Stacia Rice as Maggie: Flittering, acerbic, and fantastic

Tennessee Williams's landscape in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is that of a jungle, full of fear, predation, and the harsh dynamics of mating and reproduction. It takes a hot night on a Southern plantation, adds a sexually confused former football hero and his frustrated wife, spices through with a dying man being lied to about his condition, then outlines a scheme to swipe the property before its owner even succumbs to his illness. When one views it again, years after reading or seeing it last, the play surprises with an audacity that borders on preposterousness.

Yet it is in very good hands indeed with this assured and dynamic Torch Theater production, one that captures spot-on the lyric brutality and primal disaffection of Williams's world. While the play ostensibly revolves around family politics and a high-stakes inheritance, the real game here is the dark, murky politics of sex and its rarely solid relationship to truth—in this imagining, sex (of the marital variety, at least) is where the truth goes to die.

The action opens in the bedroom of Maggie (Stacia Rice) and Brick (Peter Hansen), who broke his ankle the night before in an attempt at besotted athleticism and who now has his sights set on the bottom of an Echo Springs whiskey bottle. Maggie launches into a long series of bitter soliloquies revolving around her dissatisfaction and her disgust for her five nieces and nephews, described as the "no-necked monsters" downstairs.

It's a fantastic performance from Rice, who played Maggie with a different cast and director in 2002. She commands the first act with a flittering, acerbic irony that masks a social climber's underlying fear and despair. Hansen in the early going is called upon to be sullen, taciturn, and unaccountably disgusted with his wife, and he succeeds as well with a performance that gathers gravity as it goes.

Hansen's Brick, it turns out, is mourning the boozy death of his best friend Skipper, with whom he shared a possibly non-platonic relationship. The second act swivels around Brick being interrogated by his father, Big Daddy (Peter Thoemke, a powerhouse full of rage and black humor). Big Daddy, after verbally devastating his wife Big Mama (Linda Sue Anderson), spends some quiet time alone with Brick and eventually informs his son that it's all right with him if Brick is, you know, that way.

But Brick is having none of it, and soon enough Big Daddy confronts his own mortality and the scheming greed of older son Gooper (Steve Lewis). By this point everyone is pretty much in a bad way, and a lesser show would take the opportunity to dig deep into a bag of histrionics and over-emoting (this is the karmic downside to writing great plays—having them performed often, and often badly, through the years). But director David Mann's cast melds skilled performances with a sense of ensemble cohesion, mainly by grabbing on to Williams's bitter, angry dialogue and delivering his blasted-out poetry with a sense of control.

It's a big, weird, improbably intense show, so much so that I was led into the what-if realm of the unwritten offstage play. There's the domestic drama about Gooper unloading his grievances to Mae to justify his greed ("Big Daddy ahlways luhved Brick moah!"). Then there's the Brokeback Mountain prequel, with Brick and Skipper exchanging chaste manly hugs after a tough football loss. The most frightening one sees Brick scrubbed up, out of A.A. and, I don't know, promoting abstinence to youth groups or something.

In his notes accompanying the play, Williams wrote of the actress playing Maggie, "she has to capture the audience in a grip so tight that she can hold it till the first intermission without any lapse of attention." Rice achieves this, to be sure, and maintains that brutal hold through the next two acts as we are led through memorably dark and twisted terrain. One would almost think Williams had a jaundiced view of family life.