The choice of Laura Griffith and Brandon O’Neill for Maggie and Brick—two

The choice of Laura Griffith and Brandon O’Neill for Maggie and Brick—two examples of the superb casting of ACT’s current Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Kurt Beattie—was for me a revelation, since I’d only ever seen them in musicals (most recently as the hero and heroine of the 5th Avenue’s Carousel ). There can’t be many actors with both Tennessee Williams and Gilbert and Sullivan on their resume, but O’Neill’s portrait of the multiply wounded ex-athlete (kids, some advice: Don’t peak in high school) is a cocktail of bitterness and dry, resigned wit, wringing an amazing amount out of so few words. He speaks one for every 50 Maggie does in his Act 1 scene with Griffith, turning unflappability into emotional abuse in an epic clash of the irresistible and the immovable. Yet if Brick were merely an ice-cold villain, you’d never buy that Maggie could continue to be so hot for him; it’s a tightrope O’Neill walks expertly.

Advertently or not, Griffith’s Maggie and John Aylward’s breathtakingly good Big Daddy come off as fascinating mirror images. Part of this is the performers’ easy physicality; they seem analogously comfortable in their (extremely different) skins. (Watching Aylward, I thought of Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker and the curious grace in the way he lumbered across a room, shoulders rolling.) They’re monstrous and sympathetic, sometimes turning in a millisecond; you’re as captivated as you are appalled. Contempt for the “mendacity” surrounding them is their fuel, truth their driving engine and their weapon—wielded cruelly, yet somehow you can’t help cheering for them (considering the rest of the family is even more vile). Still, Maggie’s triumph comes when she abandons truth for her one big final lie, which Griffith plays like a diva’s exit aria.

Only an occasional hint of caricature—which leads to laughs, which leads to a slight emotional distancing—keep Marianne Owen’s Big Mama and Morgan Rowe’s Mae, both performances full of panache, from perfection. Charles Leggett, as Mae’s husband Gooper (Brick’s older brother), is highly effective in his character’s ineffectuality. I also want to mention Kyle Ballard, Kai Borch, Annika Carlson, and Nina Makino, excellent as Mae and Gooper’s four loathsome brats; shrieking like the violins in Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score, they provide incidental music from hell.

Testament to the skill of the acting is that the play’s frankness of language and subject matter became startling, even shocking, simply because the cast recreates the milieu so well. To make this material pack a punch similar to what it must have done at its 1955 premiere—in our age of The Book of Mormon, Broad City, and Amy Schumer—is some feat. Ah do declare, all that talk of “fornicatin’ ” and “queer” and “unnatural”—if I’d’a been wearin’ pearls, I’d’a clutched ’em.

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 292-7676. $15–$44. Tues.–Sun.; see for schedule. Ends May 17.