Review: Sienna Miller Coaxes New Life From an Old ‘Cat’


But Mr. Andrews has again stripped a Williams play down to its animal essence. And I’m not referring to its able-bodied stars’ appearances in states of unembarrassed nudity.

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Colm Meaney, left, and Jack O’Connell as father and son in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

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Johan Persson

The more compelling nakedness on display is that of people revealed in the altogether of their atavistic impulses: the will to keep living and the fear of dying. The characters may be motivated by the elements that keep prime-time soaps spinning season after season: power, sex and money. But this production insists that such desires, and their fancier manifestations, can be reduced to the all-consuming fight to stay alive.

As the play’s blunt philosopher in residence, the plantation owner Big Daddy Pollitt (a terrific Colm Meaney), puts it, “The human animal is a beast that dies, but the fact that he’s dying don’t give him pity for others.”

That makes life a mighty lonely business. And the production uses the expanse of the Apollo stage to define the unbridgeable distances among people. The setting is Big Daddy’s mansion — or to be specific, the bedroom of his alcoholic older son, Brick (Mr. O’Connell), and Brick’s wife, Maggie (Ms. Miller). It is Big Daddy’s 65th birthday, and though his family has yet to tell him, recent tests have revealed he has terminal cancer.

As designed by Magda Willi, this is no chintz-filled boudoir out of Southern Living. The two indispensable pieces of furniture — a bed and a vanity table (with a mirror) — are in place. And there’s an open shower, which Brick makes use of, clothed and unclothed, to drown out the din of family strife.

Otherwise, there’s nowhere to hide. The dwarfing metallic walls are the color of money — shades of copper and silver and gold, according to Jon Clark’s masterly lighting. (Alice Babidge’s glitzy “Dynasty”-style costumes carry out the theme.) It’s a bleak temple to materialism, a sort of modernist version of the death-denying pyramids of Egypt.

It is also as stark as a doctor’s examining room. And this production is always monitoring its characters’ vital signs. In the case of Ms. Miller’s Maggie, these are strong enough to make you think she must have considerably more than nine lives to trade on.

For years, I’ve admired Ms. Miller’s determination as a risk-taking actress onstage as well as onscreen. She seemed ill at ease in her Broadway debut, “After Miss Julie” (2009), but she was far better when she returned two years ago as Sally Bowles in the revival (of the revival) of “Cabaret.”

With Maggie, the poor but shrewd debutante who has married into money, Ms. Miller at last has a stage role she was born for, and she owns it unconditionally. The play’s first act is largely hers, as Maggie tries tirelessly to talk her seemingly insensate husband (who’s broken his foot while drunkenly jumping hurdles) into behaving at Big Daddy’s birthday party and, more important, returning to their marital bed.

Vivacious doesn’t begin to describe this woman, as she struts, cajoles, clowns and vamps, while Brick keeps refilling his glass with whiskey. She’s tough, funny, smart, sexy and — in sudden, searing glimpses — desperate. Ms. Miller, a survivor of relentless tabloid scrutiny and a Hollywood that eats beautiful actresses for breakfast, channels her natural grit and gameness to dazzling effect.

Mr. O’Connell, who starred in the 2014 film “Unbroken,” gives a gorgeously anesthetized performance, a portrait of a man working hard to insulate himself from life’s pain and finally failing. For it’s not just Maggie who keeps poking at Brick’s sore spots, which include too tender memories of his dead best buddy, Skipper.

Big Daddy is also bent on rousing Brick from his boozy slumber. And Mr. Meaney is superb in finding the harsh love for his son that fuels the extended discursive dialogue of the second act.

This is no cracker-barrel caricature but a shaded portrait of someone who, for all his vulgarity and cruelty, compels admiration. Like Maggie, Big Daddy is a cleareyed pragmatist, willing to take on any truth except the fact of his imminent demise. And when that finally registers for him, it’s with an elephant’s bellow of defeat.

The ensemble is the best I’ve seen in “Cat.” Lisa Palfrey locates a heartbreaking dignity in the foolishness of Big Daddy’s doting wife. As Gooper and Mae — Brick’s slick brother and alarmingly fertile sister-in-law — Brian Gleeson and Hayley Squires persuasively ground their characters’ comic gold-digging in a fetid earthiness.

Like everyone else in the ensemble, they’re bigger than life, but they’re not cartoonish. Every performance looms large in ways that suggest how we all become exaggerated — and arguably truer — versions of ourselves when we feel our survival is threatened.

Mr. Andrews and his team remind us that there can be truth in melodrama. And that life never glows more fiercely than in the shadow of death.

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