‘Cat On A Hot Tin Roof’

CHAUTAUQUA – Beginning on Friday, with one preview performance, and officially opening a week from today, the Chautauqua Theater Company will present a production of one of our country’s best-known pieces of literature for the stage: ”Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” by Tennessee Williams.

I’ve spent the past week reading background information about the playwright and the play itself, mingled with conversations with the actors portraying the four major characters from the play. I found myself eager to share with our readers what I’ve learned, in the hope that it will make you want to make the trek to Chautauqua, to see one of the 10 performances, before the play ends its run on July 7.

Most Americans are at least familiar with the name of the play. A cat who leaps from a branch or a higher roof and lands on a hot tin roof, must escape immediately and step as carefully as possible to avoid severe burns to its paws. One of the many versions of the script says that the only victory possible for such a creature is staying on as long as possible, and surviving. The title creates a very vivid image of one of the central characters in the play, and enriches the audience’s understanding of its impact.

I asked several friends if they have a visual image of the play, and each of them immediately remembered the beautiful, young Elizabeth Taylor, lounging seductively around the stage in her slip. Ms. Taylor played the lead in the play, and eventually in the major motion picture of the plot, from 1958, but if you’ve only seen the movie, you don’t begin to understand the play.

Let me tell you a bit about the writer and his play, and then I’ll share with you what I learned from talking with the four leading actors.

THE PLAYWRIGHT

Thomas Lanier ”Tennessee” Williams was born in Mississippi in 1911. He grew up in a home dominated by an iron-willed mother, who considered herself a ”Southern Belle,” and superior to his father, who was a traveling shoe salesman who made a point of being absent as often as possible, and provided little or no financial support to his family.

The future writer felt responsible to protect his delicate and increasingly mentally ill younger sister from poverty and an unkind world. Williams dreamed of escaping from his mother’s domination, yet often returned home to try to protect his sister. The internal conflict of misery in staying and guilt when leaving would play an important part in his many successful writings.

Although he experimented with writing novels and did write a number of successful short stories, poems, and essays, Williams’ fame rests upon his plays, many of which came to be professionally produced on Broadway. He won Pulitzer Prizes for ”A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1948, and for ”Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in 1955, although it was strongly rumored that the 1955 jury had ranked his play as the least of the five nominees, until Joseph Pulitzer himself insisted that it must be given the prize.

The list of his successful plays, in addition to the two Pulitzer winners, includes ”The Glass Menagerie,” ”Orpheus Descending,” ”The Rose Tattoo,” ”Summer and Smoke,” ”Sweet Bird of Youth,” The Night of the Iguana” and dozens more. Many have been made into feature films.

Much of his professional career involved being torn in two directions, just like his desire to leave home and to stay there. Williams understood very well the struggle of a sensitive individual to deal with inescapable truths, while he lived in a culture which overtly demanded that truths which it considered unpleasant must be ignored. Especially the writer’s homosexuality was a subject he seemed eager to explore in his writings, yet when he attempted to do so, film studios, producers, editors and others demanded that the subject be veiled, or omitted completely.

Much argument has gone on over whether Williams had been born so that his active creative period extended into the more tolerant modern day, whether his power as a writer would have been liberated, or if it was his ability to hint at and talk around socially rejected subjects which was his true strength, as a writer.

Williams died in 1983, at the age of 71. When he died, he was working on a play called ”In Masks Outrageous and Austere.” Attempts to complete that play have been made, including by author Gore Vidal, but no successful script has yet been created.

THE PLAY

”Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” takes place in a single, very warm day in the 1950s, in the home of the Pollitt Family. The home is a Southern-style plantation house in the Mississippi Delta, in the days before air conditioning was common in homes. The owners are known as ”Big Daddy” and ”Big Mama.”

I’ve read a number of explanations for those names, ranging from Southern-born people claiming they called their father ”Daddy” and their grandfather ”Big Daddy,” to a number of writers who have claimed that the nicknames referred to people who are considered unusually sexually gifted, and that Williams used the terms as such, in conversations.

The Pollitts are the parents of two sons. Their older, Brick, is handsome and has become a professional athlete. He has always been his parents’ favorite child. The younger son is known as Gooper. He is more average, in seemingly every way, and he has spent his adult life working at the elements of his father’s business which are less glamorous, such as keeping the books.

The entire play takes place in the bedroom occupied by Brick and his beautiful wife, Maggie, as they have returned to his parents’ home to celebrate Big Daddy’s birthday. Big Mama insists that doors in her home not be locked, so visitors often walk into the room unannounced, and there is an outside gallery which connects the rooms in the house, from which anyone who wishes to do so can listen anonymously to whatever is said or done in the rooms.

We soon learn that Big Daddy has recently been examined at a clinic, where he has been diagnosed as terminally ill, with cancer. As was often the custom in the 1950s, Big Daddy and Big Mama have been falsely told that he is perfectly healthy, while the rest of the family has been made aware of the truth.

What has resulted is a competition between the sultry Maggie and Gooper’s homebody wife, Mae. Both women are determined that their own husband will inherit most, if not all of Big Daddy’s money and property. Mae has already given birth to several children and is heavily pregnant with their next child. Maggie is determined to produce a child as well, as heirs are important to Brick’s parents, but Brick refuses to cooperate.

The evening before the curtain rises, Brick has gotten roaring drunk, and has gone out to the high school athletic field, where he was once the town’s hero. Attempting to jump the hurdles on the school’s track, he has injured his leg. He spends most of the play in pajamas, and varying degrees of undress, lounging around the bed with his crutch. The couple’s physical attractiveness and their alternating seduction and repulsion for one another is an important element of the play.

Maggie seeks to win him back to his interest in herself, in hopes of having that all-important baby, using light summer clothing and even that famous slip as weapons, and going through seduction, guilt, threats, lies, and any other tool she might think of to draw him in.

Meanwhile, Big Daddy, used to being the boss and in control of every situation, tries to bull his way through the walls of lies, traps, tricks, flattery, promises and similar ”mendacity” which surrounds him, as his sons’ wives become increasingly desperate in their lust for his wealth.

There are three principal versions of the script for the play. Williams wrote an original version in the early 1950s, but when it was accepted to be performed on Broadway, the producers insisted that elements be changed, which created the second principal version. When Hollywood, with its famous ”Legion of Decency” accepted the script to be filmed, things were watered down substantially. Williams accepted their demands, and even came up with many of the changes, himself, believing that if he didn’t, the studios would hire a hack writer and possibly do great damage to his work. Many people have seen the film with Taylor as Maggie and Paul Newman as Brick, and that is the only version of the plot which they know.

In 1974, the play was revived on Broadway, and Williams felt that society had changed enough that he could put back many of the controversies which had been trimmed from earlier versions. The 1974 version is the most frequently performed today, and is most likely to be taught in classrooms.

Every production since has used one of the main three versions, or has mixed elements of one version with those of other versions, according to the directors’ visions and the understanding of the actors playing the roles of what their character should or would not do.

To name just a few of the controversies in the play, there are questions of whether Maggie actually loves Brick, or whether he and his father’s wealth are her meal tickets and nothing more. The degree to which Gooper is a participant or a pawn in his wife’s grab for Big Daddy’s millions has varied.

Whether Big Daddy truly ”has a letch” for Maggie is in question, and whether she is willing to encourage that feeling is an issue. The degree to which Mae and Gooper’s children are spoiled and repulsive has been an issue.

The most important element of controversy has been Brick’s reasons for staying drunk, and his aversion to his beautiful wife. We’re told that while Brick was playing football, he had a close friend named Skipper, who has since died. The nature of Brick’s relationship with Skipper has been variously suggested and variously worded, as the play has been re-examined and re-produced for the past 60 years. The role of that relationship in Skipper’s death has varied.

In the most recent production on Broadway, which featured film star Scarlett Johansson as Maggie and former Chautauqua Conservatory member Benjamin Walker as Brick, the director actually cast an actor to play Skipper’s ghost, to literally demonstrate the dead friend’s role in Brick and Maggie’s relationship.

Chautauqua is working on its own answers to these issues, and I have no doubt will offer a thrilling examination into these people and their reasons to do what they do. I hope you’ll make the trek to Chautauqua, to delight in their work.

GUEST ACTORS

Chautauqua’s Big Daddy will be performed by stage, television and film actor Harris Yulin. He made his Broadway debut in 1963, and has had a long and successful career, playing Claudius to Kevin Kline’s Hamlet, major roles in ”A Lesson from Aloes” with James Earl Jones, and more than a hundred more. His films include ”Scarface” with Al Pacino, ”Looking for Richard,” with Pacino and Alec Baldwin, ”Cradle Will Rock,” ”Training Day,” and recently ”The Place Beyond the Pines.”

Television watchers know his face from ”Law and Order,” ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” ”Frasier,” ”24”and ”Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”

Big Mama will be performed by Candy Buckley, who has lighted up Broadway in ”Cabaret,” ”After the Fall,” ”Thoroughly Modern Millie,” among others, and whose many Off-Broadway roles include the queen in Westfield-born composer Michael John Lachiusa’s hit show ”The Petrified Prince.”

Both actors were kind enough to interrupt their lunch hour, early in the rehearsal period, to accommodate our early deadlines, before they had the opportunity to really zero in on their characters.

Yulin said that it is not his usual style to spend a great deal of time digging into various versions of the script, but that this particular play requires such an approach. ”Williams found ways to adapt his plays to actors of various ages and physical natures, so it’s necessary to find the words which best fit our actual realities,” he said.

Buckley illustrates that argument with her own character. Several versions of Big Mama dwell on the fact that she is a fat old woman, no longer attractive to her aggressive husband, while the actor herself is slender and most attractive. She said, ”When they invited me to play the role, I wrote to the director that I have played fat women and could do it, but ‘my clown’ isn’t fat, and we have been finding versions which don’t include that quality in her. Big Daddy finds many ways to verbally assault her without calling her fat.”

”We are doing this with a very brief rehearsal period,” Yulin explained. ”We have to put together these relationships in a way which works for us, and which works with our relationships with the other characters as well. There is an enormous amount of text, but it’s a gold mine of thoughts and feelings, to dig into.”

Because Big Daddy is so prone to demand and to insult, I asked his portrayer if he sees the character as a villain. He answered, ”Villainy, in real life, is in the eyes of the beholder. If somebody fires you, he’s a villain to you, for example. Nobody considers himself to be a villain. People like Big Daddy see themselves as being truthful, refusing to play games with people’s prejudices. I think Williams saw all of these people in this play as good people, struggling with who they are and what they think they have to do.”

Both actors have heard about Chautauqua before, but neither has been here before. Buckley reported, ”I’ve never heard an actor speak negatively about the theater company here. I was eager to find out about it for myself.”

Yulin teaches in the theater department at the Juilliard School, and said that while he has been focusing on television and films, recently, a number of his students at Juilliard have participated in the Conservatory Program, giving him very positive reports.

It’s always interesting to watch professionals gradually learning the realities of Chautauqua, where necessary services might be a long drive away, where cars must be parked outside the Grounds and similar situations.

Buckley said that she needs to fly back to New York City to attend some auditions in the midst of rehearsals. ”All the while I’m learning all these many words and trying to find the realities in this woman, I have to memorize the scenes I’ve been sent for audition. More and more, directors officially announce that they don’t mind if actors read from their scripts in auditions, but we find that roles go to those who audition entirely from memory.”

Yulin said that he finds there is a hunger in our country for serious theater and even classical theater, which defies the negative pronouncements of pundits who have never experienced that hunger in their own lives. ”A few years ago, I joined together with Ed Asner, Rene Auberjanois, Judith Ivey and a company of people who love theater. We would go out for several weeks and get ourselves booked into theaters in small towns and various cities, with a production of ‘Don Juan in Hell,’ from Bernard Shaw’s play ‘Man and Superman.’ We did a concert version, reading from music stands and wearing regular clothes, rather than costumes and people came. If they came because they recognized our names, they often told us the play and the performance had wakened something in themselves of meaning and value,” he said.

I suspect these actors’ performance is going to be extraordinary.

CONSERVATORY ACTORS

Brick and Maggie will be played by members of the Chautauqua Conservatory, made up of young actors, typically in graduate studies and already launched on professional careers.

Maggie the Cat will be performed by Darkly lovely Carly Zien. Currently entering upon her third year of study at the Yale School of Drama, she had performed roles in many Shakespearean productions, as well as ”Sunday in the Park with George,” ”Iphigenia Among the Stars” and ”Charlotte’s Web.”

Her reluctant husband will be performed by Peter Mark Kendall, holder of an MFA degree from Brown University’s Trinity Rep Graduate Acting Program, with credits in ”The Three Sisters,” ”Elijah,” ”Love’s Labour’s Lost, ” ”Waiting for Godot” and many more. He finds himself dealing with the role of Brick, while preparing to play the demanding role of Mercutio in the Romeo and Juliet project, scheduled for July 27.

Zien says that she has had the opportunity to study the role of Maggie with her teachers at Yale, and that her original view of the character has changed considerably. ”I imagined Maggie as a classic femme fatale, a woman who loved the power over men she got from her looks. But I’m finding more and more that instead, she is a survivor. She comes from a poor background, and in the culture of the 1950s, a woman had few choices in life. Her looks are her best hope to survive, so she’s playing that card.”

Kendall said he had to pass up the opportunity to see the recent performance by Chautauqua alumnus Benjamin Walker. ”I try not to be influenced by other actor’s portrayals,” he said, adding, ”plus I can’t afford to go to things like that, at this stage of my career.”

Both young actors are learning to love and hate each other, to be attracted and repulsed by each other, and to show us the humanity of their characters on the Chautauqua stage, in the coming week. I hope you’ll be there.