The imposing building in a beautiful setting in Raleigh’s Pullen Park still has the engraved remnants of the North Carolina National Guard, as this structure previously served as its armory. In 2004 it was renamed the “The Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre” to honor the first gentleman of theater in North Carolina, and Theatre In the Park‘s Executive and Artistic Director, Ira David Wood III. For their final mainstage production they are presenting the classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams’ own personal favorite of his numerous award-winning plays and the one which secured him the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1955. In keeping with the family business, this play was directed and introduced to the opening-night audience by Ira David Wood IV.

As wonderful as the 1958 movie adaptation starring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and Burl Ives was, since this was 1950s America, many of the overt references to homosexuality and attacks on homophobia – which play a central role in the psychic conflict among the three main characters – were removed from the film script. Once you see the play – this was the first time for me – much of the ambiguity and “cleansing” of the movie falls away and you are left with an even more powerful and multi-layered story.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has it all – seething and frustrated sexual desire, greed, ruminations on death and lost youth, the lies we all tell each other, familial jealousy – and that’s just in the first act! We meet the young couple: Brick, the youngest son, former football hero, and alcoholic by profession, and his wife Maggie, abandoned sexually by her very attractive husband, who prefers the solace of drinking over the joy of sex. The family is gathered to await the return of Big Daddy, the wealthy patriarch of the family, who is returning from a clinic where he has undergone tests for cancer and also celebrating his 65th birthday. Rounding out this highly dysfunctional family is older brother Gooper, a successful lawyer, his shrieking, baby-making wife Mae, and their brood of five “no-neck monster” children with a sixth on the way. Trying to hold this brood together and practicing a unique brand of denial and self-delusion is Big Mama.

Despite our best efforts, it is often difficult to put aside iconic performances by actors who supposedly “own” certain roles. Such was the case here as I arrived with retained images of Taylor/Newman as the battling hotties Maggie and Brick. That was quickly dispelled. Sarah Bousquet, playing Maggie (“the cat” who feels like she is walking on that hot tin roof and can’t get off) replaced any other performances of one of the great roles in the American theater and truly made it her own. She wanted nothing more than to be loved by Brick, and you felt her frustrations about that, their childless marriage and the possibility of returning to a life of poverty when Big Daddy dies. Rob Rainbolt, playing Brick, had the very difficult assignment of portraying a drunk for most of the play, which is fraught with acting clichés and stereotypes. He was even darker than Newman’s movie version and effectively portrayed the pathetic, wallowing in self-pity of a 27 year-old whose only hold on life is reliving past glories, drinking, and dwelling in that “terrible secret” of his friend Skipper, who killed himself.

Real life attorney John T. “Jack” Hall played the delicious and conflicted role of Big Daddy. While he incorrectly believes that he is free of cancer and has only a “spastic colon” (you will never hear that condition mentioned more than in this play!), he is arrogant, bullying and quite cruel, especially to his befuddled wife. Bonnie Roe plays the role of Big Mama as kind of a southern Edith Bunker who, upon learning the truth about her husband’s mortality, looks to her drunken son Brick for comfort, completely ignoring Gooper (Brook North), the one who did just as society demanded yet still gets only disdain from his parents.

Much of the play deals with lies we tell each other and their devastating effects, but even worse is the self-deceit. The unresolved issue of whether Brick was really in an “unclean” relationship with his friend Skipper is less important than Brick’s inability to face whatever it was. Can we really be truthful with each other only when we are facing death? Williams resurrected the oddly lovely and lyrical word “mendacity” for this purpose. What a piece of work is man!

This play has a running time of nearly three hours and 15 minutes (with two intermissions) and there was hardly a slack moment to be found. A great play is nothing without actors who can inhabit the characters and convincingly portray the conflicts and emotions behind the playwright’s vision. There was no weak link here. I am still thinking about these characters days after, and that alone is convincing evidence of a compelling and emotionally consuming production.

The play continues through 6/24; for details, see the sidebar.