It can be tempting, especially after the marathon run of family engagements that accompanies the holidays, to think that your relatives are uncommonly dramatic.
So, it helps to be reminded that, however many highballs Uncle Jim puts down or how much your mother nags you about tying the knot, your family is probably a lot more normal than it seems.
And that, among many other reasons, is why we have Tennessee Williams.
Almost any scene from one of his greatest plays ("The Glass Menagerie," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Summer and Smoke," "The Rose Tattoo") is guaranteed to blow your family's Christmas dinner out of the water. Williams' brand of family drama, tied up as it is with sex, death and a desperate longing for impossible things, has served as the inspiration for any number of plays in the "and you thought your family was weird" genre, from Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" to Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County."
Perhaps Williams' most compelling, beloved and breathlessly engrossing play, and his personal favorite, is "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." The Irish Classical Theatre Company's brisk, emotionally affecting and somewhat chilly production of the play opened Jan. 14 in the Andrews Theatre.
The critic Kenneth Tynan memorably described the three-act drama as "a birthday party about death."
The action takes place on a Southern plantation, where members of an aristocratic family meet to argue over the family fortune. Patriarch Big Daddy (played with irresistible rancor by Dan Walker) is dying of cancer, unbeknown to him and to the wife he detests (the blustery Sheila McCarthy). His favored son, Brick (Neal Moeller in an excellent performance), has emptied his life of all hope for his own happiness and replaced it with alcohol, while Brick's wife Maggie (Diane Curley) is desperate to pull him back into her heart and into their bed.
Brick, who ambles around on crutches after a pathetic attempt to re-create the football glory of his youth, is broken up over the death of his best friend Skipper, who everybody insinuates was his lover. ("A true thing between two people is too rare to be normal," Brick says about his friendship with Skipper.)
And then there is Big Daddy's other son, Gooper (Eric Rawski), and his wife Mae (Kelly Ferguson-Moore), whose disdain for Brick and Maggie is matched only by their desire to take control of the vast family estate.
Williams, who wrote the play over 18 months, built each character as a receptacle for both our sympathy and our scorn. Plot devices that in any other play would seem unbelievable are used to achieve a perfect tension between love and disgust, greed and filial obligation and -- as Williams himself once said -- between the "conflicting desires of the flesh and the spirit."
The brilliance of the play's construction and its crackling dialogue, in order to have their full and devastating effect, have to be matched by the director and cast. For the most part, director Greg Natale and his actors deliver.
Moeller visibly seethes with disdain for everyone -- including himself. It is a thrill to watch him go ego-to-ego with Walker's Big Daddy, who spouts his own peculiar brand of disgust. But while Curley, as Maggie, does catty quite well, she refuses to allow even a spark of warmth or vulnerability through the veneer.
But with Natale's keen attention to detail, the show's natural pacing and the talents of the cast and production team, this "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is itself far too rare to be normal. And that's reason enough to run out and see it right now.
"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: Through Feb. 6
WHERE: Andrews Theatre, 625 Main St.
TICKETS: $32 to $42