Friday, March 25, 2005

'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' -- Take Two

As I noted in my previous posting, yesterday marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Broadway premiere of Tennessee Williams' play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I also mentioned that I had seen three productions of the play in recent years: at the Arena Stage in Washington in 1998, at Live Arts in Charlottesville in 2002, and at the Kennedy Center last year.

The Kennedy Center production may have been the best of the three, in large part because of director Mark Lamos' insightful division of the play into three acts. (Every other version I have seen has been done in two acts.) While watching the play, I knew something was odd, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Only afterwards did I realize that the division of the action was so logical and so superior to two-act divisions of the same work.

Another odd thing happened the night I saw the show at the Kennedy Center. I was sitting with my friend, Nigel Ashford, when at a critical moment in the play, when Brick has finally had so much to drink that he can say, with satisfaction, that he hears "the click" in his head that he has longed to hear, a woman sitting only a few seats away from us, in the same row, said, "It's about time!" in a voice loud enough to ring through the Eisenhower Theatre auditorium. It was jarring, to say the least.

But wait, there's more.

A few weeks later, attending the Kennedy Center's production of The Glass Menagerie with Sally Field, my friend, Tim Hulsey, and I were seated at the other end of the theatre. At a quiet but critical moment near the end of the play, that same woman, located in the same place, made another loud comment in reaction to the action on stage. Her voice was unmistakable.

But wait, there's still more.

Last week, seeing the opening night performance of Mister Roberts at the Kennedy Center, Tim Hulsey and I were there again. This time the lady spoke from the rear of the auditorium, just as Ensign Pulver gets his pluck at the end of the play. Luckily this was a comedy, so her comments were not so noticeable. But again, her voice was unmistakable.

I'm beginning to look forward to opening nights at the Kennedy Center, just to see when and what this woman announces something to the audience.

Anyway ... here is my review of the Kennedy Center's 2004 production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which appeared in The Metro Herald on June 25, 2004.

Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

A perspicacious critic -- not this one, alas -- observed a few years ago that in English-language plays of the latter half of the twentieth century, plot became a secondary and sometimes even a tertiary element. What happens is in itself not so important as how characters react to what happens or how they are affected by what happens. Consequently, contemporary drama has become more and more character-driven. Character and theme trump plot and action.

Tennessee WilliamsCat on a Hot Tin Roof, now in a new production at the Kennedy Center, may define this new sensibility as plainly as any other American play of its time. Stripped to its essentials, nothing happens. But what swirls around that “nothing” -- now that’s drama.

Divided into three acts, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof centers on Brick, who says as little as possible for a pivotal figure who is not a mute. Each act is self-contained, sufficiently so that they could be performed as one-act plays.

The first act is virtually a monologue for Brick’s wife, Margaret (“Maggie the Cat,” played by Mary Stuart Masterson). The second act is a dialogue between Brick and his father, Big Daddy (George Grizzard), while the third act is an ensemble piece comprising the entire family, including Big Mama (Dana Ivey), older brother Gooper (T. Scott Cunningham), and pregnant sister-in-law Mae (Emily Skinner).

Jeremy Davidson’s Brick is a taciturn drunk, seeking to drown his “disgust” in liquor. At the same time, as Maggie acknowledges, Brick has not, like other dipsomaniacs, lost his looks. She begs him to become fat and ugly so that she no longer desires him, since he has rejected her and no longer sleeps in the same bed with her (as Gooper and Mae gleefully learn by eavesdropping from the next room). Indeed, Davidson, who stirred Washington audiences a few years back in Signature Theatre’s Helen Hayes-winning Nijinsky’s Last Dance has the looks and appeal of a wolf on the prowl, someone who would turn heads upon entering any room. Yet Brick is totally indifferent to his sensuous allure.

Masterson’s curtain-raising monologue is a tour de force, as Williams presumably intended it to be. Delivered almost entirely while dressed in a scanty, flesh-toned slip – removing other items of clothing, bit by bit, like an inattentive ecdysiast – Masterson is a sultry and pouting Maggie. Yet despite the heat, Maggie comes across as emotionally shrammed, frozen by her spouse's indifference and her own regrets.

Maggie’s first-act speeches are revealing stream-of-consciousness. We learn practically all of the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof back story as Maggie complains to Brick about their relationship, about their treatment by the family, about her rivalry with Gooper’s wife, about her childhood and adolescence in a down-on-its-luck Southern society family. While she accuses Mae and Gooper of avarice, her own greed is only thinly disguised. Does she want a baby to produce an heir, or just to get her unresponsive husband into bed?

Maggie’s first-act monologue is briefly interrupted by an appearance of Ivey’s Big Mama, a force of nature herself. Big Mama is a woman who for forty years has deferred to her husband, quiet in her own way but always in control, always exercising her maternal instincts, extending even to making the bed for her adult son and his wife. Her ability to take control even in acknowledging her own weaknesses -- Big Mama is not an educated or a sophisticated woman, but she
knows what she wants and how to get it -- and in the face of impending tragedy is, perhaps, one of the most underestimated elements of this play.

In the second act, Brick and his father have a face-off. Big Daddy wants to know why Brick drinks so much. They explore -- as do Maggie and Brick -- Brick’s friendship with the deceased Skipper. Brick is upset that so many people assume that his and Skipper’s relationship was not “clean and true,” that they had been, in fact, lovers.

That everyone else in the play -- Maggie, Big Daddy, Gooper -- treat this peculiarity so matter-of-factly causes one to doubt Brick’s sincerity in denying it.

While Brick rails against “queers” and “sissies,” Big Daddy is a stolid monument to tolerance (he is even explicit about it) that seems out of place in a play by, about, and from the 1950s.

Grizzard’s Big Daddy is smaller in stature than many actors who have previously played the role, and he approaches the character with an underplayed subtlety that brings out previously undiscovered textures, making some of Big Daddy’s rough edges smoother without depriving him of his capacity to dominate not just a family, but also a plantation community of great size. Rather than the snarling patriarch audiences have come to expect, Grizzard gives us a man of tact and discretion, one who edits an earthy joke to make it palatable to his genteel audience.

The plot, such as it is, comes into play in the third act, when the family convenes to discuss the disposition of Big Daddy’s property in the event of his impending death from cancer. Gooper -- the responsible son -- has drawn up trusteeship papers. Unfortunately, his act of responsibility is perceived by Big Mama (not to mention by Maggie) as a presumptuous act of covetousness for Big Daddy’s $10 million cash fortune and 28,000 acres of prime farmland.

The design elements in the Kennedy Center’s production -- part of the Tennessee Williams Explored festival that extends through August -- are outstanding. Howell Binkley’s lighting, John Lee Beatty’s soaring set (which suggests an aerie-like quality for Maggie and Brick’s bedchamber), and especially Jane Greenwood’s 1950s-period costumes create just the right tone and provide us with an unmistakable sense of time and place. Director Mark Lamos demonstrates that he discerns who these people in Big Daddy’s family are and what matters to them.

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