A 'Cat' with some teeth

Georgia Lyman as Maggie and Kelby T. Akin as Brick in the Lyric Stage Company production of Tennessee Williams's ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.'' Georgia Lyman as Maggie and Kelby T. Akin as Brick in the Lyric Stage Company production of Tennessee Williams's ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.'' (Mark S. Howard)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / February 18, 2009
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'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" - just hear the title, and you probably already see a few iconic images in your mind: slinky Maggie in her slip, Brick clutching his glass, big ol' Big Daddy. The challenge for actors, as so often in Tennessee Williams's major plays, is how to respond to those expectations and still find something fresh in their roles.

Boston actors couldn't ask for a better coach in this challenge than Scott Edmiston, who consistently brings to his direction of Williams an essential blend of steel and silk. Edmiston finds the shifty terrain where Williams's characters live, a deceptive place full of both hard realities and gauzy illusions, and he knows how to direct actors right to that spot.

In the "Cat" that he's currently directing at the Lyric Stage Company, there are moments when we're absolutely in that territory. Most of those moments occur when Georgia Lyman is onstage, bringing palpable heat and grit to the role of Maggie the Cat. But in the talky second act, for example, when Maggie leaves the room to her despairing husband, Brick, and his larger-than-life father, some vital energy leaves, too, and we're all a little lost without it.

Still, the best moments make this "Cat" absolutely worth seeing - particularly if you only know the bowdlerized film version, in which Brick's terror that he may be gay is reduced to mere grief at the death of his best friend. Without that subtext, Maggie's urgent fury doesn't make much sense, so you owe it to yourself to see the play as Williams wrote it - or, at least, in one of the ways he wrote it, for even onstage he made substantial revisions to suit his director, Elia Kazan, and his own sense of how this deeply damaged family would play out its story.

And Lyman's Maggie is often just mesmerizing to watch. Maggie's expert baiting of Brick (and her undisguised glee when, in a rare outburst, he responds to it), her cruelly funny imitations of her nasty-sweet sister-in-law, her physical longing for the husband she knows doesn't want her - Lyman finds specific, precise, and fully believable ways to inhabit each of these mercurially shifting moods. She is, as Maggie must be, absolutely pulsing with life.

Opposite her, Kelby T. Akin gives Brick an almost unbearable fragility; he lets us feel all the depths of Brick's tormented self-loathing. If he never quite persuades us that he could have been a football player, he still demonstrates a believable strength in his scenes with Maggie.

Without her, Akin's Brick feels less focused; it's as if he needs her clawing at him to define who he is. But Brick's other great opponent in the play, Big Daddy, here just doesn't seem to give him enough fuel to stoke his (admittedly hidden) fires.

Edmiston has said that he agreed to direct "Cat" at the Lyric only if the company's producing artistic director, Spiro Veloudos, played Big Daddy, and you can see why Edmiston thought of him for the role: Emotionally as well as physically, Veloudos is a big guy, with an expressive face and expansive gestures to match. But his Big Daddy feels, especially in his first moments onstage, curiously subdued. Both vocally and physically, he's not the dominant presence you expect.

Veloudos does seem to relax into Big Daddy's big suit as the play goes on, so it's possible that the initial muffled impression will change during the run. It's also possible that he's emphasizing the vulnerability and weakness behind Big Daddy's bluster; this is a man, after all, who's dying of cancer, even if his family is trying to keep that knowledge from him, and he's also becoming aware of how the control of that family may be slipping from his grasp.

In the smaller parts, Cheryl McMahon's Big Mama, Owen Doyle's Gooper, and, especially, Elisa MacDonald's Mae have all the self-interest, venality, and mendacity that Williams has given them. Their sometimes comical excesses add texture to this evocation of the play's uniquely Southern world, as do Gail Astrid Buckley's sensitively chosen costumes, Dewey Dellay's bluesy sound selections, and Karen Perlow's peachy lighting.

Janie E. Howland's set wonderfully combines specific touches of 1950s bedroom decor - a gilt-accented bed, a delicate chaise - with a back wall of sheer fabric. On a practical level, this translucent panel lets us see various characters eavesdropping on or hiding from the action in front; on a more metaphorical plane, it adds a note of fantasy to the otherwise realistic set. A single room bounded by a dream - that's where Williams lives, and that's where, at its best moments, this "Cat" lets us go.

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF Play by Tennessee Williams

Directed by: Scott Edmiston. Set, Janie E. Howland. Costumes, Gail Astrid Buckley. Lights, Karen Perlow. Sound, Dewey Dellay.

At: Lyric Stage Company, through March 14. Tickets: $25-$50. 617-585-5678,

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