“Maggie the Cat is alive!” says Tennessee Williams’s famous heroine, and it’s true in the big handsome production that opened Monday at the Round House Theatre. Strategically stripped down to her thin white slip, Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan’s Maggie rattles around the gorgeous bedroom she shares with her wreck of a husband, the beautiful but deeply drunk Brick (a magnetically withdrawn Gregory Wooddell).
This absorbingly paced show isn’t packed with explosive new revelations or a daring approach; it’s just consistently on the mark. Under Mitchell Hébert’s direction, the acting draws you into the discontents of these iconic Southern figures, especially the play’s three pillars — Maggie, Brick and Big Daddy (a formidable yet sympathetic Rick Foucheux). Significantly, this show has an ingredient that somehow eluded other recent modern classics such as “Uncle Vanya” and “Fool for Love” at Round House: Heft.
The satisfying scale starts with Meghan Raham’s set, which features soaring louvered doors that let warm shafts of light into the spacious bedroom once shared by the plantation’s owners and lovers, Peter Ochello and Jack Straw. Those doors are thrown open and the obnoxious extended family scrambles in — Brick’s brother Gooper, his wife, Mae, and their loud kids, derided by Maggie as “no-neck monsters.”
All the characters outside the central triangle are gargoyles, as Williams’s first director, Elia Kazan, recognized. There aren’t really any middle notes to Big Momma, but Sarah Marshall hits the role’s distant poles of comedy and pathos with grace. Todd Scofield and Marni Penning thoughtfully imbue Gooper and Mae with a measure of dignity even as these characters grab at a big payday; you’ll recall that the plot turns on who will get the plantation after the cancer-riddled Big Daddy is gone.
Williams’s bigger concern, of course, was “mendacity.” There is a big lie to reveal concerning Brick — who, as the play begins, is hobbled in a cast thanks to an inebriated dash over hurdles the previous night — and his recently dead friend Skipper, the third leg of a romantic triangle involving Brick and Maggie. That relationship is still unsettled in Brick’s mind, and it’s the subject of the long second act (this production’s most penetrating passage) between Wooddell’s bitter, confused Brick and Foucheux’s bombastic yet inquisitive Big Daddy. Stripping away the layers of deceit takes patience and will, and the father-son rapport between Foucheux and Wooddell, appropriately stiffened by old-fashioned Southern formality, is superb.
It’s startling at first to be confronted with Elizabeth Taylor’s coloring and styling in Keegan’s short raven hair and scarlet lipstick; is this a silhouette any sane actress really wants to evoke? The shadows of past “Cat” actresses are long, and maybe overpopulated with images of bombshells and sirens. This show doesn’t run on that kind of sultriness even though Keegan, trim and radiantly healthy, fiddles alluringly with her garters and makes Maggie’s desire plain. Her Maggie is sexy, yet she’s not a slinky, smoldering mantrap. She’s a terrific talker — a must, since the first act is practically all Maggie. Mentally, Keegan’s Maggie is quicker by miles than anyone in the room except Brick, and by the end her chemistry with Wooddell’s defiant, wry Brick has a nice clean click.
For some reason big classic American dramas are coming in twos: Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” with Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” now at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre, a pair of Lillian Hellman plays at Arena next season, Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” and “The Crucible” from the Belgian experimentalist director Ivo van Hove on Broadway this season. This “Cat” comes immediately behind “The Glass Menagerie” at Ford’s Theatre, and like that “Menagerie” it steers a solid middle course. It looks sharp (Ivania Stack did the tastefully colorful 1950s costumes) and listens closely to Williams’s lilting music and harsh truths. The attentiveness pays off.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Mitchell Hébert. Lights, Andrew R. Cissna; sound designer and composer, Christopher Baine. With Tom Truss and Stephen Patrick Martin. About 2 hours and 45 minutes. Through April 24 at the Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. Tickets $30-$61, subject to change. Call 240-644-1100 or visit roundhousetheatre.org.