Tensions detonate like fireworks for Big Daddy's birthday in Lisa Peterson's well-paced and -designed "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
Her atmospheric, expertly acted production of the Tennessee Williams classic, playing in Minneapolis at the Guthrie Theater, is a combustible collision of avarice, desperation and mendacity in a world where women get fulfillment through their husbands and resources are concentrated in the hands of one very profane man.
The heat is illustrated (somewhat incongruously with the Minnesota cold) as Maggie (Emily Swallow), the slip-wearing, sex-starved belle who is the cat of the title, runs ice cubes up and down her arms. She wants to have a baby by her husband, Brick (Peter Christian Hansen), but he is consumed with grief over the recent death of his close friend, Skipper, and drowns himself in drink.
The sparks come from conflict within the Pollitt family, which has gathered to celebrate the 65th birthday of patriarch Big Daddy (David Anthony Brinkley). Brick's brother, Gooper (Chris Carlson), and his productively fertile wife, Mae (Michelle O'Neill), are angling, along with the reverend (Stephen D'Ambrose) and Big Mama (Melissa Hart), for some of Big Daddy's 28,000-acre Mississippi Delta cotton estate. The old man is dying of cancer, although nearly everyone keeps the news from him.
Director Peterson's stop-start staging overflows with strong emotions that alternate with quiet moments. The moods are helped along by designer Scott Zielinski (lights) and Paul James Prendergast (sound), who help focus on Maggie's thoughts. Peterson releases Gooper's kids into scenes like raucous banshees.
Peterson's blocking gets weird in one respect. The walls of the plantation bedroom (Rachel Hauck designed the spacious set) where all the action occurs are imaginary. In some instances, actors clearly observe the wall. In others, the walls seem to disappear.
The director gets solid, in-the-moment performances from her cast, with Swallow delivering a flawless Maggie. She has perhaps the most lines in the play, using speech, Lady Macbeth-like, to work out her thoughts and to work her will. Swallow takes us through her gear-switches with aplomb. Hansen's Brick operates in a limited, sourpuss range. But that character has never had much variation.
Brinkley's Big Daddy is humorously and warmly matter-of-fact, despite his sauciness, while Melissa Hart delivers an amiable Big Mama.
If you judged the characters around Big Daddy by a truth-meter, Brick would rate the highest, with his unmasked grief betraying his own emotions. Yet while he tells the truth about others, Brick does not speak honestly about his own relationship with Skipper, a reflection of the playwright's own confusion, and ours.