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The joys come on their own, mostly, but if there’s one thing Tennessee Williams understood about life, it’s that we make our own griefs. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the playwright proves a despairing chronicler of the human struggle, cataloging the ugly lies and the unpretty truths we tell each other, asking how much of each it takes for us frail creatures to survive in this strange world we’ve created out of surfaces and pretense. And Mark Lamos’ finely tuned Kennedy Center staging, anchored by three eloquent performances, makes a case for both the brutality of that world and the gentle sympathy of the playwright’s take on it. This Cat is altogether a fine beast.

It is, above all, the occasion of a towering performance from George Grizzard as Big Daddy, the Mississippi patriarch on whose plantation the family Pollitt gathers like so many buzzards, waiting for the cancer to carry him off. Big Daddy, who’s under the impression he’s been handed a clean bill of health, can come off as a bundle of crudeness and temper; Grizzard, though, makes him genuinely tragic, nearly the Lear of Williams’ aspirations. He gentles him, makes him wiser for the scare he’s had and the second chance he thinks he’s been given: This is a believably chastened man, defiantly exuberant about clearing away the rubbish of the past and reconnecting with the few people who really mean anything to him.

The tragedy, or at least it’s a tragedy in Lamos’ empathetic reading of the play, is that so few of Big Daddy’s dependents do mean anything to him. He honestly despises his wife of 40-odd years. He actively loathes his dull, dutiful firstborn, whose only thought as the old man faces an ugly death is for the preservation of the Pollitt estate—“28,000 acres,” in Williams’ unerringly Southern cadence, “of the richest land this side of the Valley Nile.” His five grandchildren—the deliciously nicknamed No-Neck Monsters—are an anonymous, irritating blur to him. Only with Brick, the onetime athletic hero who’s drinking himself guiltily to death in the upstairs bedroom, does Big Daddy feel any sense of connection.

With Brick, that is, and with Maggie: Maggie, the nervously feline creature who both inspires and utters the play’s title, who knows part of why her husband is trying to drown himself in bourbon—and knows that their future depends on her ability to snap him out of it before Big Daddy discovers how far things have deteriorated. Maggie and Brick are two sides of the play’s dramatic triangle, Big Daddy the third, and under the skin they’re the same, all of them: They’re too aware of the world’s hypocrisy ever to be entirely happy in it.

Mary Stuart Masterson’s Maggie is a fetching thing, more relaxed than many, certainly sensual. She’s not quite the “hard, frantic, and cruel” animal she sees in her makeup mirror, but that hard outline is beginning to make itself visible beneath her features; it’s there as a wariness about the eyes, an anxiousness about the mouth. You root for her schemes to succeed, for her own sake, too.

Brick is the show’s great peril, a character who can seem a cipher unless the actor discovers as much eloquence in his long silences as in his furious outbursts and his famous (and famously evasive) discourse on “mendacity.” Jeremy Davidson, so expressively verbose in Nijinsky’s Last Dance at the Signature Theatre, slouches and broods his way to a triumph here, presenting a remarkably clear picture of the roots of Brick’s despair—his guilt over a football buddy who loved him to the point of self-destruction—while maintaining the essential mystery at the character’s core. And with Grizzard, he builds an Act 2 of such powerful confrontation, of such near connection, that you think for once, oh, for once, these two tormented men might make their peace.

It can’t be, of course, and Lamos can’t quite rescue the play from the structural anticlimax that is Act 3, but he and his leads do make a few fine moments out of it. Dana Ivey, as Big Mama, shows the backbone that Big Daddy finds so threatening, and the final exchange between Brick and Maggie packs the emotional weight—the full measure of mingled despair and defiant hope—that Williams intended. In a world of surfaces and pretense, it suggests, the way to survive may be to begin with a lie and hope to make something honest out of it eventually.

The Radiant Abyss begins with, um, a bang: The lights come up on a blowsy, 40-ish woman astride both an office chair and a lanky young man, and the two of them go at it loudly for what seems, hilariously and uncomfortably, like an eternity. The noise isn’t all grunt and squeak, either: Real-estate sharpie Erin Skidmore has a gripe or three to get off her prodigious chest, and let’s just say that amiably stupid security guard Steve Enloe isn’t enough of a distraction to keep her from voicing ’em. “I’m surrounded by blind morons,” Erin growls, even as she and Steve get emphatically into their very separate grooves. “Have you heard lately—on the radio? Or on TV? My god. They’re running this country into hell.”

Which “they”? Any “they” will do: weak-spined public officials, wild-eyed preachers, the wife-beating deadbeat immigrant in the next apartment, the incompetent minority in the front office—they’re all stubbornly clueless about how decent people oughta do things, right? And Erin has a plan to teach ’em, to register a little disgust at the state of things, if not—with an assist from Steve and his sweet-seeming innocent of a girlfriend, Ina—to actually take a step or two in the direction of redressing her grievances. In The Radiant Abyss, a world-premiere commission for the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, writer Angus MacLachlan has a field day with the ugly American tendency to chafe at our discontents without ever really understanding them, to feel just comfortable enough with ourselves to want an Other to blame for our dissatisfactions. And he paints an unnervingly acute portrait of a privileged nation whose people somehow feel so put-upon that they’re ready to lash out at someone, anyone, in the effort to set things right.

“Right,” of course, is a problematic concept in the American melting pot, and what MacLachlan puts his finger neatly upon with this funny-until-it-gets-scary play is the trouble that can arise when competing value systems clash in a culture that insists on the equality of everyone’s beliefs. What he hasn’t pinpointed, significantly and (one presumes) intentionally, is a way out. It’s surely no accident that the play ends with an explosion of violence, that its victims aren’t some unknown other but its three all-American individuals, or that its final words form a question freighted equally with inevitability and shock: “Now what?”

The steep escalation of stakes in the final scene of The Radiant Abyss is startling, to be sure, but it doesn’t come out of nothing. Unexpected developments, in fact, are the production’s one constant. In the vision of designers James Kronzer (set) and Shannon Thomas Kennedy (props), the Middle America the play inhabits is a world upended, a world of transition and disarray: Moving boxes turn Erin’s shabby, unfinished office into an obstacle course where people are constantly tripping over themselves, banging knees and elbows. Mattresses and other deadbeat leavings await auction, and “For Rent” signs hang ready for duty, awaiting the next eviction. Amid all this disorder, director Lou Jacob keeps the beats so tight and MacLachlan’s characters so believably tangled up in their own heads that it’s impossible to predict what anyone’s going to do or say next. Suspicion, fear, and defensive maneuver seem to be everyone’s default settings; Steve proves unreliable, Ina surprisingly bold, and Erin utterly unaware of how dangerous her manipulations of both are becoming.

Or is she? Janis Dardaris’ hard-edged but somehow sympathetic performance makes it impossible to tell if Erin intends to push the buttons that ignite the plot’s final detonation or if hers is just the final, fatal miscalculation of a survivor reacting moment to moment. Certainly Dana Acheson (in a prodigious display of technique) takes Ina convincingly from sweet to troubled to desperate to downright unhinged, and Jeremy Beazlie makes his fuckup, fuck-around Steve a potently attractive animal, dumb and damaged enough to appeal to the mothering instinct and yet wily enough to exploit it. To a woman like Erin, who’s had her share of experience with abusive, exploitative men, and a woman like Ina, who’s perceptive enough to see the danger but helpless to resist it, he’s as much a threat as any Other.

In the downward spiral of The Radiant Abyss, MacLachlan acknowledges flat-out that the world gives everybody plenty of cause for frustration—that it’s impossible sometimes not to feel as if “some sort of statement is needed”—and simultaneously argues that too often, the statements we make turn into the kind of actions that inspire our designated Others to mull a statement or two of their own. “There is right, and there is wrong,” Erin shouts in a moment of exasperation—and she goes on making that statement right up until everything has gone irretrievably wrong.CP