Owen Carey
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Portland Center Stage at the Newmark Theater, 1111 SW Broadway, 274-6588, 7 pm Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 pm Fridays-Saturdays, 2 and 8 pm Saturdays, 7 pm Sundays, through April 4, $16-51.

P ortland Center Stage approaches Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer-winning play from a purist angle, with a stage dripping with southern elegance and sunset light. One can hear the cicadas and the lightning bugs buzz in the lazy evening, and the air smells like mint juleps and musky sweat.

Brick (Jeff Portell) is a has-been jock resigned to drinking his life away. Recently injured in a drunken accident, Brick confines himself in his room with his crutch and his liquor cabinet. Where Brick serves as the center for the play's story, Brandy Zarle's Maggie is the emotional lynchpin, a cracked southern belle with a frantic cruelty bordering on insanity. Zarle's performance is impressive in its scale, however it's hard to tell whether or not she is simply playing a young Elizabeth Taylor, who played Maggie in the 1958 film. From her over-the-top beginning, Zarle does hit her stride toward the play's end, although one feels almost embarrassed for Maggie's sexual assuredness.

Maybe that's just where people get in trouble with Tennessee Williams. The stage sets are always elegant, the characters slightly wilted but beautiful, and the words are lovely bordering on devastating. But how hot would tickets sell if theaters, instead of promising flirtatious (and yes, scantily-clad) young characters with romantically tragic lives, hyped Williams' penchant for domestic violence, and alcohol-fueled self destruction? PCS understandably has taken the sexier angle, and the trade-off is that key characters like Maggie threaten to bury their subtler points in mounds of heaving, white slip cleavage monologues that feel more desperate than seductive.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof takes place in real time, with all of the slow, humid haze of a hot Southern night. At just over three hours, the play may force you to wonder, "Can't this abusive family fall apart a little more quickly?" Jim Peck and Joann Johnson (as Big Daddy and Big Mama) are class actors, capable of filling the stage with their performances. Supporting actors Tobias Anderson, Maureen Porter, and Tim True all inspire more laughs than is probably appropriate for such a dark play, but it is an uncomfortable laughter, more likely just an excuse to breathe. TOUSSAINT PERRAULT