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Review: Georgia Ensemble flays open wounds of dysfunction in first-rate “Cat”

Imminent death can bring out the worst in people, or perhaps, yank the truth out. Either way, members of the Pollitt family are extremely ill-behaved when gathering for what is likely Big Daddy’s last birthday. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the famous family drama by the great Tennessee Williams, plays out its turmoil at Roswell’s Georgia Ensemble Theatre through September 29.

Everyone tiptoes around as the action begins. Maggie (Kate Donadio McQueen) and Brick (Joe Sykes) tiptoe around their bloodless marriage and his affair with his best friend. Mae (Kelly Criss) and Gooper (Topher Payne) pretend not to notice that Brick is the prodigal son and that their place on the family tree has rotted. Big Mama (Karen Howell) wants everyone to keep up the ruse that they’re a big, happy family. And no one will admit that they’re all after Big Daddy’s money.

Dysfunction abounds with the Pollitt family and friends (from left) Peter Hardy as Doctor Baugh, Topher Payne as Gooper, Karen Howell as Big Mama and Kelly Criss as Mae.

This ensemble cast, under the direction of James Donadio, delivers one of the best productions staged at GET in years. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a dialogue-heavy play, but Donadio keeps it alive, even in its still moments. MacQueen nails Maggie’s “no-neck monsters” monologue. She’s presumptuous, tantalizing and chatty in vying for the affection of a man who resents her. We all know women like “Maggie the Cat” — judgmental, entitled and desperate.

Criss is hilarious as Mae, aka “Sister Woman,” in what might be her best performance yet, building on the excellent work she did in Angry Fags at 7 Stages in April. She’s nosy and insufferable, just as Williams intended. John Maxwell is perfect as the curmudgeonly Big Daddy, holding court in his white linen suit. With every gesture and gripe, especially in his scenes with Brick, it’s like watching a genius at work. The entire ensemble warrants praise for keeping the show going during a terrific thunderstorm that caused microphones to crackle and lights to flicker.

The only performance that doesn’t quite resonate is Sykes’ Brick. He’s an unexpected casting choice and comes off as boyish. His Brick seems like a weak man who has gotten weaker, not a strong man past his prime. This makes it difficult to believe that Maggie would ever have been attracted to him. And yet, his boyish indifference is fascinating as we watch everyone dance around him.

The actors have a beautiful set on which to play out their dysfunctions. Designer Kat Conley creates an idealistic Southern locale to house the hysteria. The home and its furniture are white. Draped sheer curtains represent windows and doors. Conley gets especially creative with a white-washing effect on the wood and the vanity, which has a mirror represented by a half-frame. Spanish moss, which hangs from the ceiling, is the cherry on top.

Joe Sykes as Brick (left) and John Maxwell as Big Daddy

The costumes by Cole Spivia are beautiful, especially Big Mama’s iridescent cream-and-pink party dress. She’s a pageant queen with crow’s-feet who still wants to look good for a man who doesn’t see her. She and Maggie are the before and after photos, enhanced by era-appropriate wigs (by George Devours).

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of Williams’ masterworks and, in fact, won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was a truly revolutionary work for its time. In an era that brought us suburbs, interstate highways and revived dance cards, Williams gets beneath the façade. He writes the torment of a man drinking himself to death because he was never free to love who he wanted. And he writes Southern women who are desperate to be seen and appreciated but who don’t know how to express their longing.

Articulating this deep dissatisfaction knocks down the plantation walls and alludes to the idea that devotion doesn’t always pay off. This all-white world feels awash with color — Williams’ greatest strength as a playwright. He shows the grit in the genteel.

After Maggie’s opening monologue, Brick says, “Lately, your voice sounds like somebody warning everybody that the house is on fire.” Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a smoke signal for now, and then. It’s the story of people who have traded self-respect for financial comfort, and the rallying cry of women stuck in marriages with men who fall short of expectation.