The Round House Theater's production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Tennessee Williams' classic about blood, guilt and greed, does credit to a great American play. In the end, you're left to marvel at what a good play it is: still packing its punch after nearly 30 years.
The Round House's punch, occasionally gloves-off, is delivered for the most part with skill. Happily, the two pivotal roles -- Big Daddy, the family's death-defying patriarch, and Maggie, his equally nervy daughter-in-law -- unfold in capable hands. Dion Anderson plays Big Daddy as the forceful, canny figure he must be, but you also sense frailty just below the surface. Greta Lambert as sexy "Maggie the Cat" is a presence not to be trifled with.
The action is set on the occasion of Big Daddy's 65th birthday at his 28,000-acre plantation in the Mississippi Delta -- "the richest land," as he boasts more than once, "this side of the Valley Nile." His family -- resentful son Gooper and Gooper's crudely scheming wife Mae, teamed against his favorite but drunken son Brick and Brick's quick-witted mate Maggie -- have gathered there, along with Big Mama, ostensibly to mark the milestone.
Their real purpose, as soon becomes clear, is to seize the old man's money. What Big Daddy and his worshipful Big Mama don't know -- but the sons and wives do -- is that this bull-strong patriarch is about to die of cancer. Williams presents the blood-feud as a backdrop for revelation: Here is one play that builds to an old-fashioned catharsis.
Greta Lambert gives a claws-out performance as Maggie, changing from sex-kitten to lioness and back as she pricks the taciturn Brick -- "Other men still want me; I still turn heads on the street" -- scratches her rival Mae -- "Why did you give dogs' names to all your kiddies?" -- and saves her best purrs for Big Daddy. But Lambert also has moments of warmth and vulnerability, as when one of Mae's brats -- "no-neck monsters," as Maggie calls them -- tells her, "You're just jealous because you can't have any babies," and Lambert's body crumples at the truth in that line.
In her scenes with Alessandro Cima as Brick, the liquor-dazed husband who won't talk to her or give her children, Lambert more than holds her own, even when Cima threatens her, "Do you know I could kill with this crutch?" -- then hurls it in her direction. Cima, in a generally subdued performance and wearing a perpetual smile, can't seem to muster that brooding physical presence that the part of Brick, the failed football star, requires. It's one of the production's weak spots.
Dion Anderson as Big Daddy, unlike the role's creator Burl Ives, isn't larger than life, partly because Anderson is big, not gross, and wears natty sports jacket and khakis instead of the white suit and string tie that made Ives something of a cumulus cloud. Even when he utters the four-letter words that were too daring for the play's original 1955 production, or thunders at Mae, "I can't stand any kind of sneaking or spying, it makes me puke," Anderson uses restraint. When he arrives in Act II, he's the most commanding figure on stage, but also touching and pathetic, as he boasts to Brick, "Lucky I'm a rich man, lucky I'm a rich man," or muses, "A man can't buy back his life when his life is finished."
He's particularly credible when he says he never loved Big Mama, played by June Hansen with the same unappealing bombast that she used as Matron Boll in the Kennedy Center's production last year of "The Physicists." Sarah Marshall as Mae and Michael Littman as Gooper bring to their roles fierce desperation mingled with hangdog resignation. Among the actors in lesser parts, Gerry Paone deserves special notice as the mousy but grabby Reverend Tooker, he of the funereal air and, as Big Daddy observes, the "dry little cough."
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF -- At the Round House Theater, 12210 Bushey Drive in Silver Spring, through October 24..