The role of Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams' great fever blister of a play, is for female actors what Hamlet is for men. You have to be of a certain age--make that experience--to inhabit this fleshy role. It would also help to be old enough to know what it's like to be ignored by a lover. Old enough to have learned how to wield your body as a weapon of mass seduction. Old enough to understand in your bones the desperation fueling Maggie's feline sexuality.
The life in Maggie's body, her urgency to produce a child, is the blood flowing through the twisted veins of love and hate in Williams' very corporeal story. Maggie selfishly, obsessively, loves Brick, her alcoholic husband. His rich father, Big Daddy, hates his wife, Big Mama, for craving his attention. Brick loves his liquor and the memory of Skipper, his dead football buddy. Is Brick gay? Even he doesn't know, or perhaps can't admit it to himself. Secrets and greed boil to a head on the humid night of Big Daddy's 65th birthday, when the patriarch will receive news of his terminal cancer, and cat fights break out over the inheritance of 28,000 acres of fertile Delta land.
In Portland Center Stage's new Cat, directed by Chris Coleman, we've got a Maggie for the TiVo generation, a character who speeds through her lines at an unsettling pace, unwilling to slow down and tease out the emotion in the erotic thrust-and-parry of Williams' masterful dialogue. As played by Brandy Zarle, Maggie's restlessness seems flighty and shrill--to use one of those apt gendered insults--rather than sexually explosive. That's a shame because the actor displays a potent physicality, but so far exhibits none of the subtlety, the languor, that would make this complicated character become flesh.
In fact, all of the women--JoAnn Johnson's bawdy Big Mama and Maureen Porter's catty Mae--are played broadly, leaning toward caricature by delivering bow-tied lines to the audience rather than finding the play's nuances.
The miscues lie in directorial interpretation, not technique, as these actors are so obviously able to manage the material, and also so well served by the strong technical aspects of the production.
The commanding presence of Jim Peck's Big Daddy is reason enough to see this production, however, for the simple pleasure of watching an actor so grounded in his body, using agile eyebrows, a subtle, darting tongue and his own girth as vital props in creating a fully realized portrait of a cruel, yet honest, bully. Jeff Portell's Brick remains subdued in early scenes, yet rises to the challenge of facing off with Big Daddy.
And at this particular moment in local history, when all of Portland has served as an audience for a sidewalk revolution of same-sex weddings, Cat's probing examination of the festering wounds and betrayals at the heart of the institution seems especially timely. All the more distressing, then, to be delivered a production that's not willing to let the scratches show.
Portland Center Stage, Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, 274-6588. 7 pm Tuesdays-Wednesdays, noon and 8 pm Thursdays, 8 pm Fridays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 pm Sundays through April 4. $16-$51.