ORONO — Seeing Jasmine Ireland on stage is always a kick, even though most often, these days, her stage appearances have been confined to showing the Ellsworth High School’s student actors how it’s done as the director and choreographer of the school’s musicals, plays and show choir performances.
One hopes that those young actors will make the trip to Orono this weekend for a brilliant master class on how acting is done.
Ireland is currently starring as Maggie in True North Theatre’s thrilling production of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the Cyrus Pavilion.
The Pavilion is an intimate venue, where the audience seats descend right to the floor of the stage, which makes it perfect for this particular drama, giving the audience a sense that it is invisibly in the room, eavesdropping in on a family crisis — a thing many of the characters in the play do as well.
Set designer Tricia Hobbs’ single scene of a bed sitting room is simple and uncluttered, suggesting the elegance of a Southern plantation home, but also something damaged, neglected.
The first act of this three-act play is virtually a one-woman show, with Maggie desperately trying to stir up some reaction from her sullen husband, Brick. While his wife changes dresses for her father-in-law’s 60th birthday celebration, Brick hobbles on a crutch to and from the cocktail cart.
Brick (effectively played by Tyler Costigan) is broken in both body and spirit. While we quickly learn why he is using a crutch — a drunken attempt at the high school track hurdles resulting in a fractured ankle — what has shattered his soul is gradually revealed throughout the course of the play.
In this opening scene, Maggie cajoles, coaxes, shames, entices and harangues Brick with her considerable arsenal of verbal weaponry and body language, to get him to pay attention to her and get dressed for his father’s party. All her efforts are met with angry grunts, boozy complaints and more trips to the bar.
There are few people one can listen to for a solid hour of non-stop talking and find riveting throughout. This is what the role of Maggie demands, and Ireland rises magnificently to the challenge. She delivers Maggie’s desperation, rage, hurt, biting wit, defiance and duplicity with the speed, accuracy and dexterity of Venus Williams serving up aces and volleys on the tennis court, without ever — to extend the analogy — hitting it out of bounds. Her experience, as both an actor and a director, has made her wise enough to trust the playwright’s words to do most of the work. Her Maggie never seems forced or false.
The only seeming drawback of such a powerful performance is that Ireland totally overwhelms Mr. Costigan’s Brick, who is reduced to a ragged leaf in a windstorm under his wife’s gale force barrage. Since as an audience member you are right there in the room, you want to yell out “Snap out of it, you jackass!” as he pours himself another drink instead of giving his wife an honest response or even deigning to look at her.
Of course, this is likely what Tennessee Williams intends. We understand immediately that something terrible has happened to estrange this attractive couple, leaving her sexually and emotionally frustrated and him essentially gutted.
Eventually Brick will have his say, and we will begin to understand the foundation of distrust and lies his family’s dynasty is built upon. The lies they tell each other and the bigger ones they tell themselves.
The patriarch of all this mendacity is Big Daddy, Brick’s father, played with powerfully malevolent perfection by Tellis Coolong. Big Daddy is a self-made cotton tycoon who falsely believes he has been given a reprieve from terminal cancer. He uses his new lease on life to bully all the family and friends who have gathered for his birthday.
Still, in the midst of these mean-spirited tirades at his disappointing family, Coolong manages to somehow make Big Daddy sympathetic, even, at times, admirable, reminding us, (as if we needed it, these days) that charisma is not necessarily a good thing.
The rest of Big Daddy’s family consists of his twittery wife Big Mama, convincingly portrayed by Deb Ashmore as an aging belle, living in a practically impervious bubble of denial; his eldest son Gooper, an unctuous Erik Perkins, dripping with resentment; Gooper’s conniving, pregnant wife Mae, a wonderfully awful Aimee Gerow, a conniving … well, it rhymes with witch, and their passel of noisy, unruly kids played so convincingly played by Beatrix Foster, Megan and Evan Gerbi and Eric and Ruth Graebert that you just want to smack ’em.
To nitpick, one wishes that in an otherwise excellent costume wardrobe for these characters, Big Mama’s look had been less literally girlish and Mae’s more literally pregnant. Big Mama’s baby doll ringlets with a spritz of gray, for instance, is a bit too reminiscent of Bette Davis as Baby Jane and surely Mae, who is constantly flaunting her fertility, would have displayed her new baby bump spectacularly rather than hiding it behind a chic beige tea dress. It would have been so much more fun disliking her in one of those clownish maternity smocks with the bows and bright colors expectant moms wore in the ’50s.
Also, in otherwise fine direction from Angela Bonacasa — the three hours fly by— Brick’s hobbling to the bar every three or four minutes when he’s on stage does get monotonous. Maybe that’s what Tennessee calls for in the stage directions, but even a seasoned alcoholic with two good feet would have trouble staying upright after imbibing more than a half-gallon of straight whiskey in a couple of hours. It’s a miracle that Brick, a relative newcomer to binge drinking, manages to stay mostly upright on one foot and doesn’t die of alcohol poisoning halfway through the play.
And, at some point, wouldn’t someone by Act Three have picked up a broken lamp that was knocked to the floor at an angry moment in Act One. They do, after all, have a maid, (Nellie Ickes-Coon.)
But perhaps the neglected lamp is another metaphor for a family that hasn’t a clue how to put itself back together.
There are three more performances of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Jan 18-19, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20, at the Cyrus Pavilion on the University of Maine campus in Orono. Having encouraged teenage student actors to make the trip, parents should be aware there is strong language and adult themes. For information, call 619-4833 and visit www.truenorththeatre.org.