Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof name drops its own title rather early on in the first act when a wife describes the pain of living with a husband who doesn’t love her back. In a way, all of the characters of Baltimore Center Stage’s most recent production are on their own tin roof. Some are lonely; some are unloved; but none of them know how to get down safely. Their attempts to find peace are clumsy and often almost painful to watch, but the show’s immense empathy for its characters makes it difficult to tear one’s eyes away from the stage.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof takes place over the course of a single evening at the summer plantation home of a wealthy family gathered to celebrate their patriarch’s 65th birthday. While Maggie (Stephanie Gibson) attempts to convince her drunkard husband to clean up his act and fight for his rightful share of his future inheritance, the rest of the family struggles to keep Big Daddy (David Schramm) from learning that he is dying of cancer. As the birthday celebration continues, tensions quickly rise and every member of the family is forced to re-examine the relationships and dynamics that have pervaded their lives.
Overall the play is packed full of conflict — the kind that can only be born out of years of familial interaction. Some conflicts, like the eldest son’s jealousy of his younger, more loved brother, are more familiar or commonplace. Others, like the slowly unfolding story behind Brick’s (Andrew Pastides) descent into drunken debauchery, are more shocking and tabloid-ready. Still, the script and the cast’s performances do an amazing job of grounding these storylines and keeping the various family members from being one-note characters. Most of the characters are pretty unlikable, but it is difficult to walk away from the show without feeling some sympathy for them all.
Tonally, the play manages to strike an excellent balance between its more lighthearted moments and the darker, more serious exchanges. There are a lot of abrupt shifts that could potentially be jarring, but the comedy never detracts from any of the more emotional moments (and vice versa). Furthermore, no matter how strained the relationships between the characters might be, they are still a family. And the moments of humor really emphasize that connection and make the characters feel much more well-rounded.
Of course a play is only as good as its cast, and Baltimore Center Stage’s production has an incredibly talented group of actors that all do a phenomenal job of bringing the story to life. Gibson is particularly excellent as the desperate and sly Maggie — she dominates most of the opening act and quickly establishes the character as a force to be reckoned with. Maggie is constantly putting on an act, whether for her husband, her father-in-law or the rest of her family. It’s never quite clear where she stands in relation to the rest of the group.
Pastides also deserves special note as Brick, the family’s former golden boy turned isolated drunk. Although he spends most of the first act in a drunken glaze, Pastides shines when Brick is forced into contact with the rest of his family during the second act. He does an excellent job of shifting between numb detachment and barely repressed anger, all while pulling himself around the stage on a broken leg (with or without crutches).
Finally Charlotte Booker’s performance as the family’s matriarch (appropriately referred to as Big Mama) was incredible. Every second that she is on stage she completely sells the character’s over-the-top, somewhat obnoxious attitude, whether she’s barging through a side door because the bedroom door is locked or screaming into a telephone to speak with a mostly-deaf family member. However, even the play’s most comedic character is not immune to the growing conflicts that surround the family, and Booker does an excellent job of exploring the character’s sadness and pain as well. From the beginning, it is clear that Big Mama loves her family more than anything else in the world, and Booker’s depiction of her complete despair and denial at the prospect of losing that love is completely heartbreaking.
All in all, Baltimore Center Stage has crafted a truly excellent performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Everything from the well-rounded performances to the layout of the claustrophobic bedroom where the entirety of the plot takes place helps to heighten the tension. Everything makes the audience feel like they’re looking in on an actual family gathering. Without a doubt, the show is a full-on experience, and any audience member would be hard-pressed to find a flaw in the powerfully moving production.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is playing at the Baltimore Center Stage now through Oct. 14.