Thursday, March 24, 2005

50th Anniversary of 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'

Theatre critic Bob Mondello noted an anniversary today on NPR's All Things Considered:

Fifty years ago Thursday [March 24], Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened on Broadway. The Tennessee Williams drama was a big hit in 1955, but the playwright didn't like the way Elia Kazan framed his drama. It was Williams' last big stage hit.

The original cast of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof included Ben Gazzara as Brick, Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie, and Burl Ives as Big Daddy (who repeated the role in the movie). The first production played for 694 performances.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has been revived three times on Broadway, in 1974 (160 performances), 1990 (149 performances), and 2004 (145 performances). The revivals tended to be star vehicles for the actresses playing Maggie. In 1974, it was Elizabeth Ashley; in 1990, Kathleen Turner; and in 2004, Ashley Judd. I find this strange, because the play is really about Brick and Big Daddy -- though the actors playing Big Daddy in the revivals have also been stars in their own right as character actors (Fred Gwynne in 1974, Charles Durning in 1990, and Ned Beatty last year).

Besides the 1958 film starring Paul Newman as Brick and Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie, there was a 1984 teleplay with Jessica Lange as Maggie, Tommie Lee Jones as Brick, Kim Stanley as Big Mama, and Rip Torn as Big Daddy. (Lange is currently starring on Broadway as Amanda Wingfield with Christian Slater, Josh Lucas, and Sarah Paulson in a revival of The Glass Menagerie that opened March 22.)

I have seen productions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof three times in recent years and have written two reviews. (I unfortunately failed to write a review of the 2002 production at Live Arts in Charlottesville.) Here is my review of the play as it was presented at the Arena Stage in Washington in 1998, in an essay that includes comments on two other plays about "family" relationships.

(This review appeared originally in The Metro Herald in September 1998.)

Twentieth Century Dysfunctions:
Plays by Beckett, Williams, and Freed
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Two mid-century classics and a new play with fin-de-siecle sensibility have recently opened on Washington stages. All three, for different reasons, deserve to be seen. All three provide both an evening's entertainment and considerable food for thought.

The three plays are Samuel Beckett's 1948 Waiting for Godot, at the Studio Theatre; Tennessee Williams' 1955 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, at the Arena Stage; and Amy Freed's 1998 Freedomland, at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

Starting with the most recent first, Freedomland, which had its East Coast premiere at the Woolly Mammoth on September 19, is a hilarious comedy with a serious theme. It brings us into the lives of retired professor Noah Underfinger and his three adult children, Sigrid (a well-paid painter of clown portraits), Polly (a frustrated graduate student), and Seth (a brooding loner), during one weekend of unexpected reunion at Noah's rural home. Added to the mix are Noah's second wife, who is a therapist named Claude; Seth's pregnant (but not necessarily by him) girlfriend, Lori; and an unassuming art critic accompanying Sig, Titus.

Whether it is Amy Freed's spot-on dialogue or Howard Shalwitz's manic but controlled direction, something about this play brings out the best in each of the cast members. No one stands out because all are terrific. Rhea Seehorn, as Lori, creates a far more successful character here than she did in Signature Theatre's Shooting in Madrid last season, although her accent sometimes wobbles between southern trailer trash and Connecticut debutante. Jason Gilbert, as the outsider Titus, ranges from quiet observation to over-the-top Greek tragedy (quite literally -- this must be seen to be believed). Nancy Robinette is simply amazing as Claude, who has to be far more crazy than any of her patients on the therapist's couch. Deb Gottesman's Polly is talkative, neurotic, and funny. Christopher Lane, as Seth, provides an imposing physical presence. Kimberly Schraf's Sig, the most outwardly "successful" of the bunch, exposes her own demons. And Noah, played by John Dow, is philosophical, introspective, and "normal" in his own way -- at peace with himself despite the tumult around him.

Freedomland pokes fun at pretentious art criticism (and artists, for that matter), at "back to nature" fanatics, at the militia movement, at ridiculous dissertation topics, and at foolish psychotherapeutic practices -- to name just a few contemporary topics assailed by Amy Freed. Every arrow hits its target.

Moving back 43 years, a comparison of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Freedomland proves that Leo Tolstoy was right when he wrote in Anna Karenina that "All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." At least in drama, this must be true. Conflict and dysfunction are critical to successful drama. Even so syrupy a family as The Brady Bunch has to have a conflict, no matter how trivial, in order to keep our attention for 23 minutes of situation comedy.

Granted, the problems of the Underfingers in Freedomland and Big Daddy's clan in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are much larger than the question of whether Marcia's new braces will keep her from going to the school dance. This may be why Tennessee Williams and Amy Freed are considered to be serious dramatists, despite the apparent humor of their plays, while Sherwood Schwartz and his writers are considered to be anything but.

All that aside, Arena's new artistic director, Molly Smith, has mounted a stunning production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Returning to the original script, as Williams intended it to be performed, without the changes thought necessary to make it more commercial by its first director, Elia Kazan, and without the bowdlerization of the movie made necessary by Hollywood's now-defunct (thankfully) production code, Smith has made an old and familiar play fresh and new.

The show has two stars, the lighting and sets by Pavel Dobrusky and a larger-than-life performance by Dion Anderson as Big Daddy (in a role that, a few years back, might have been performed by Arena's own Robert Prosky, who was in the audience on opening night, before Hollywood stole him away from us and cast him in such dreck as Veronica's Closet). Although he does not appear until more than halfway through the first act, Anderson's Big Daddy dominates this play just has he dominates his 28,000-acre plantation in the Mississippi Delta. In a role that could be both lugubrious and overbearing, Anderson performs with remarkable subtlety and nuance. Big Daddy is a detestable person, but Anderson humanizes him almost to the point of admiration.

To compliment Dobrusky and Anderson for their efforts should not diminish the contributions of others in the cast and production staff. Megan Gallagher slinks around with self-righteous anger (and greed) as Margaret ("Maggie the Cat") while her husband, Brick (Peter Hermann) drinks himself into a stupor over the guilt he feels because of a better-left-forgotten homosexual affair with his now-deceased best friend, Skipper (who also slept with Brick's wife, Maggie, in an effort to prove his masculinity, and later drank himself to death). Much of the first act is devoted to what is essentially a monologue in which Maggie muses about the brokenness of her marriage and inquires as to why her studly husband refuses to sleep with her. (Confused about the connections? This play may require chalkboard diagrams to understand them.)

Brick's older brother, Gooper, a corporate attorney who by all normal standards would be the "successful sibling," is played stolidly by Lawrence Redmond. Why does the family so admire the ne'er-do-well Brick while ignoring the substantial accomplishments of Gooper? This is so emphasized that Big Mama at one point even refers to Brick as her "only son." No wonder that Gooper's fecund wife, Mae (Sarah Marshall, with remarkable restraint and understatement) is so properly concerned about her family's place in Big Daddy's still-unwritten will. Unfortunately, this obvious question is never answered -- except to leave the audience with the sense that Big Daddy's family has a misplaced sense of values.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a shining beginning to a promising new season at the Arena Stage.

The last play in this trio has nothing to do with families, but it does address our common humanity and asks questions about the brotherhood of man.

Long before Jerry Seinfeld and friends brought their "show about nothing" to NBC, Samuel Beckett wrote the ultimate "show about nothing" for the stage. Waiting for Godot, in fact, begins with the classic line, "Nothing to be done," and, indeed, nothing really happens. There is action, yes; but is there conflict? There is humor and there is pathos, but there is no movement, at least not in the sense of forward or linear direction with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Things happen, but we cannot be sure what these things are. And, once we get into the minds of the protagonists, Vladimir and Estragon, we cannot even be sure whether these things happened at all.

Waiting for Godot was originally conceived in minimalist terms, with four actors and a set consisting of nothing more than a barren tree. The set at the Studio Theatre by Russell Metheny is somewhat more complicated, but still pretty bare -- we are at a roadside, under a long-abandoned billboard, next to a pile of ashes. Old friends Vladimir and Estragon -- are they hoboes? slaves? escaped convicts? -- meet to discuss their (we soon learn) perpetual wait for the mysterious Godot, who may or may not rescue them from this oblivion. Godot must exist, because he sends messengers (a young boy played by Jonathan P. LeFlore) with word that he will come "tomorrow." But who is he?

In the course of this waiting, Vladimir (Thomas W. Jones II) and Estragon (Donald Griffin) encounter Pozzo (Michael Tolaydo, looking like a cross between Rod Steiger and Dennis Hopper) and his slave/servant/pet Lucky (Hugh Nees). Through these encounters, they begin to question their own existence and their relationships -- if any -- with other people.

Because Jones and Griffin are black and Tolaydo and Nees are white, it is possible to infer racial undertones in this production, ably directed by Joy Zinoman. But such an inference, or interpretation, is not necessary to understand either the play itself or these actors' rendering of it.

Waiting for Godot is the first in a series of plays celebrating each decade of the twentieth century, to be presented by the Studio Theatre over the next two seasons. It is a noble beginning to a fine effort.

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