Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Review by Tony Vellela

Photo: Joan Marcus
Heaven Howard, Skye Jasmine Allen-McBean, Giancarlo Esposito, Marja Harmon, Marissa Chisolm, Clark Jackson,Bethany Butler, Anika Noni Rose, James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Lisa Arrindell Anderson.

Every great dramatic character older than 25 has a compelling, if sometimes unseen backstory in their fictional life. Every great love story has an unrealized or unrequited element that attracts/repels its participants. In the current revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, with Debbie Allen directing an all African-American cast, both of those aspects get their place in the spotlight.

Because of the skillful, nuanced and patient performances by James Earl Jones as Big Daddy, Terrence Howard as Brick and Phylicia Rashad as Big Momma, these characters display, reveal or uncover the people they have been in past, as well as who they are when we meet them, on that fateful night when Big Daddy’s fatal cancer diagnosis is brought to light, and his brawling brood scheme and maneuver to inherit the cotton plantation empire he has built. Of the principal roles, only Anika Noni Rose as Maggie and Giancarlo Esposito as Gooper fall back on one-note portrayals.

The ‘Bigs’, Daddy and Momma, are appropriately larger-than-life personas, his as the tireless field hand turned entrepreneur, and hers as the hostess and matriarch serving the needs of such an outsized mate. When you see them, separately, they are gusty, lusty creatures, and one can easily imagine how they were first attracted to each other, falling in love with their mate’s outsized appetites and ambitions. The expression of those characteristics has changed; the magnitude of their force has not. While we often see this side of Big Daddy, it is Rashad’s insight into who that woman was that is a revelation. Brick, their younger, favored son, is a shadow, a former football star and failed sports announcer turned current and successful alcoholic, following the death of his great good friend Skipper. Each of these fine actors allows us to see where their character has come from, so we can better understand the tragedies that flow from this night’s circumstance. Jones’s Big Daddy, after bumming the country starting at the age of ten, was taken in as a field hand by a pair of bachelor land owners, and gradually rose to positions of responsibility, finally inheriting their plantation after they both died. His has been a life spent in the dirt, proudly, and he makes no apologies for who he is or was. Big Momma is now a self-described fat woman who trumpets her opinions even when they are not heard. Rashad shows us a woman who was clearly as lusty a partner as her husband in their early years, and how that robust sensuality from the past has mutated into a motherly role for anyone who permits it. Howard’s Brick suggests in Act One that there is a complex man inside the shell that hobbles on one crutch, following the previous night’s escapade trying to jump hurdles on the midnight high school athletic field, while drunk. In Williams’ emotion-soaked plotting, Brick seems to stand still at the eye of many hurricanes, and if the audience does not become interested in who Brick was, they will never care about what he will become. Paul Newman’s Brick, in the feature film version, delivered that aspect in spades. And here, Howard rejects the usual pattern of actors who take on this role, to present someone embittered and hollow, nearly catatonic. Brick’s immobility is a choice, not just a consequence of drink or other influences. There appears to be an opening into this Brick’s soul, if someone can find it. It relates to his unspoken connection to an in-the-closet teammate who appears to have worshipped him, and to Brick’s guilt at letting that relationship go as far as it did, whether or not it manifested itself physically. Straight men who find themselves in a very close friendship with a gay man often don’t realize that the bond has grown because of the gay man’s forgiveness of the straight man’s weaknesses, and the straight man’s tolerance of the magnified attention he is receiving from a seemingly inappropriate person. Here, Skipper appears to have given Brick the unqualified support he did not get from Maggie, or anyone else. Even a rock star understands false adoration, and Brick could discern a true acceptance of his faults from Skipper. It’s all about two kinds of tolerance, and that, along with cotton, is what Big Daddy points out was the crop that grew at the plantation he worked at – two single men, living together as partners, who taught tolerance to the young farmhand by example. It is the unrealized, unrecognized lesson Brick has learned from his father.

And the unrequired love in this play, and more clearly than usual in this production, is not between Brick and Maggie, or between Brick and Skipper, but between Brick and Big Daddy. These two people, who happen to be father and son, share a mental outlook, an unapologetic love of excess, a crude need for tolerance among people, and a deeply underdeveloped ability to express or receive real love. When they go head-to-head in the exquisitely-crafted Act Two, we see more than a father upbraiding a son for bad behavior, or a son trying to shock a father into a realization that his family is plotting to consume his legacy. We see two people aching to help the other through the toughest crisis of their loves, not out of any expectation for personal gain, but out of love. Much of what Brick is or could be, is who Big Daddy is and was.

Are there flaws in this production ? Indeed, yes. The set design defies logic, and encourages awkward positioning, regardless of how many people are in the room or what they’re doing there. More glaring, though, is the weakness in two performances. Rose is certainly sexual and stageworthy [a Tony winner for ’Caroline, or Change’ ], but her Maggie is closer to a chatty magpie than a smart, savvy social climber. This character’s actions, like Big Momma, are rooted in genuine love and devotion, but Rose’s Maggie appears to be just another variety of schemer. We question this Maggie’s declarations of love. And Esposito’s Gooper, the corporate lawyer older son, appears to have no heart at all, where there should be at least a modicum of justice to Gooper’s argument that he should be the plantation’s future manager. Again, he comes across as only a schemer, without the genuine case to be made that he can hold it all together. We need to understand that Gooper is an overlooked, taken-for-granted adult, having been an overlooked, taken-for-granted child. This is a group of people with HISTORY. Those that criticize the play for being overly long miss this point, that Williams needed enough stage time for these people to untangle all that history. It is the repetition that explains the weariness that both Brick and Big Daddy feel, having built up over many long years. And with Jones, Howard and Rashad, those decades of comfort and conflict come to life.

TONY VELLELA, the veteran theatre correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, writes and produces the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.” His work has also appeared in Parade, Theatre Week, USA Today, Dramatics, Rolling Stone, and several other publications.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
by Tennessee Williams

Directed by Debbie Allen

The Broadhurst Theater>
235 West 44th Street>
New York, NY>

(212) 239-6200

Through June 22

With: Terrence Howard (Brick), Phylicia Rashad (Big Mama), Anika Noni Rose (Maggie), James Earl Jones (Big Daddy), Lisa Arrindell Anderson (Mae), Lou Myers (Reverend Tooker), Count Stovall (Dr. Baugh), Giancarlo Esposito (Gooper) and Gerald Hayes (saxophone player).

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