It’s Big Daddy’s 65th birthday and his family, friends and hangers-on have gathered on his 28,000-acre Mississippi cotton plantation to fight and claw their way into his favor before he makes out his last will and testament.
Everybody wants a piece of the old man’s holdings except the one person he wants to have it most — his second-born son Brick, a former football star who’s turned to drink after the death of his best friend.
True North Theatre Company’s production of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” currently being performed at the Cyrus Pavilion at the University of Maine, is a layered and nuanced production of an iconic play. Director Angela Bonacasa captures all the ambiguity and mendacity the playwright intended when he rewrote the script in 1974, adding back much of the original dialogue.
Theatergoers looking for an imitation of the 1958 film starring Paul Newman as Brick and Elizabeth Taylor as his neglected wife Maggie will be sorely disappointed. This “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” includes the all four-letter words and sex talk the Motion Picture Production Code censored out of movies in the 1950s.
Most directors emphasize the relationship and sexual tension between Brick and Maggie but Bonacasa lets Big Daddy, played by Tellis Coolong, own this production. Big Daddy storms onto the tiny stage like a bull and dominates all who enter his orbit. Coolong is mesmerizing in a role given short shrift in other productions.
There is nothing subtle about Big Daddy or Coolong’s relentless performance. His self-made land baron is afraid of nothing but death and losing his legacy, which he wants Brick, played by Tyler Costigan, to keep alive. Bonacasa’s second act is a tour de force of language and emotion that at times feels like Big Daddy is a bullfighter spearing his son in the neck until he’s weak enough to move in for the kill.
Costigan’s Brick has turned so far inward and gone so silent that at times he almost disappears onstage. While this Brick may try to hide in the shadows, Costigan is always lurking until his whiskey glass needs refilling. Only Big Daddy can break through the wall Brick has built to hide behind and when he does, Costigan comes out swinging, giving an emotionally devastating performance recognizable to anyone who has ever lived with a drunk.
Jasmine Ireland is delightfully charming and coy as Maggie fights for Brick to keep his status as favorite son since he won’t do it himself. The actress flings Maggie’s bafflement and anger over Brick’s indifference to her sexual overtures in his face as if she were throwing a drink at him. The actress wears Maggie’s desperation like a potent perfume.
Deb Ashmore’s Big Mama gives a flighty but convincing performance. Most often she is the woman Big Daddy shows so much derision for but every once in a while, the actress lets the charming Southern belle she used to be shine through and that woman is as charming as Maggie the Cat.
The rest of the adult cast — Aimee Gerow as Mae, Erik Perkins as Gooper, Bob Smith as Rev. Tooker and Mark Bilyk as Dr. Baugh — give fine performances in supporting roles.
Bonacasa’s vision for this story of family dysfunction is beautifully executed by set designer Tricia A. Hobbs, lighting designer Scout Hough and costume designer Rebecca Wright in the round Cyrus Pavilion, where the audience is seated on three sides of the stage and looks down on the bedroom set.
True North Theatre took a misstep last summer with a well-intentioned but flat production of Alan Ayckbourn’s “Table Manners.” With “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” the company has re-established itself as a community theater group that proves why classic plays, such as last year’s “The Lion in Winter,” should be performed — they offer insight into the human condition no matter what century they are set in.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Cyrus Pavilion at the University of Maine in Orono. For information, visit http://www.truenorththeatre.org or call 619-4833. Latecomers will not be seated until the first act ends.