“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” at the Lyric Theatre
in London was a powerful play, perhaps Williams’s most powerful,
because it concerns the family caught in a crisis common to most
– the imminent death of its head: “I’m trying to catch that true
quality of experience in a group of people,” wrote Williams, “that
cloudy, flickering, evanescent – fiercely charged! – interplay
of live human beings caught in the thundercloud of a common crisis.”
Williams daringly constructed act one
as a virtual monologue by Maggie, whom he describes as “charming,”
obviously thinking of Southern women, with their good looks
and musicality of voice he so admired that he wrote some of his
best dramatic poetry for Maggie and others who, like her, are
steel magnolias -- Alexandra in “Sweet Bird of Youth” and Hannah
in “The Night of the Iguana,” which follow “Cat.” Maggie likens
herself to a cat on a hot tin roof because she is in a desperate
position, trying to woo back her indifferent husband Brick and
conceive a child that will guarantee their inheritance of the
vast plantation of his father, Big Daddy. She also must outwit
her grasping brother-in-law Gooper and his wife who, together
with their progeny, are flattering and fawning to gain control
of Big Daddy’s millions as soon as he dies of the terminal cancer
of which he is unaware.
But hardly catlike in her movement, with
awkward gestures and flat voice, Frances O’Connor’s wiry Maggie
comes across as determined but hardly appealing as Brick, lounging
on a settee, ignores her. The handsome former athlete cannot
move from their room because he is on crutches, having broken
his leg the night before when, drunk, he tried and failed to clear
hurdles on a track that like the hurdles in his life, have become
insurmountable. (“Where would I be without my symbols?” asks Williams)
The action intensifies to a climax of pure,
gripping theater in act two in a confrontation between Brick and
Big Daddy, expertly enacted by Brendan Fraser and Ned Beatty.
The ravages of time and the certainty of death are the twin themes,
as Williams explores the father-son relationship, rife with accusation,
self-delusion and self-doubt, stripping away the pretense each
detests and arriving at the painful truth. As Brick, who
drowns his guilt in alcohol, Fraser is a find for the theater.
When he appeared in the 1992 film “School Ties” as a high-school
football quarterback, he already was displaying the sensitivity
that serves him well as former athlete Brick, one of Williams’s
most difficult roles because of its sexual ambiguity, which Williams
insisted upon (and defended).
In addition, Brick, as Arthur Miller
notes, is “a lonely young man sensitized to injustice.
Around him is a world . . .of grossness, Philistinism, greed,
money-lust, power-lust….In contrast Brick conceives of his friendship
with his dead friend as idealistic….” Against the gross
world, whose mendacity disgusts him, Brick might fight as hard
as he did on the football field, but he knows he will not win
against Time. He confesses to his father, “Time just outran
me, Big Daddy – got there first.” In addition to looking the part
of a former football star, Fraser movingly conveys the complexity
of this troubled young man.
In their act two battle of wills, Williams
exposes the truths each character must accept about himself :
Big Daddy’s facing up to his mortality and Brick’s guilt over
his friend Skipper, whom he deserted after Skipper confessed his
homosexual love. As Big Daddy, Ned Beatty is not physically
large like Burl Ives in the original production and the film,
but Beatty is a consummate actor who portrays a complicated man,
with both the strength and the vulnerability of a redneck plantation
owner who began as a tramp and fought his way to the top.
Beatty well demonstrates what Williams
describes as the “crude eloquence” of Big Daddy in this second-act
scene as he responds to Brick’s complaint about mendacity:
“Think of all the lies I got to put up with! – Pretenses!
Ain’t that mendacity?…Having for instance to act like I care for
Big Mama!… Church! – it bores the Bejesus out of me. . . .Clubs!
-- Elks! Masons! Rotary! – crap!” His foil,
Big Mama, loving and long-suffering, covers her hurt with jokes,
and Gemma Jones is excellent in revealing the depths of this woman
who finds good in her husband even as he disparages her.
The scene between son and father, described
by Brick as “painful,” hit home with the original audience as
well. In the intermission following it, first nighters stood
around the lobby silent and visibly shaken – among them parents
with whom the scene obviously struck a chord of recognition.
It is not clear why the director, Anthony Page,
chose the inferior Act 3, or “Broadway version” over the one Williams
preferred. The original third act, as written, was used by Howard
Davies in his highly successful 1988 National Theatre production
in London and on Broadway, which proved the superiority of the
act as the playwright first wrote it.
Williams reveals in the printed version
of the play, which contains both act threes, that he was coerced
by Kazan, the original director, to rewrite the scene, bringing
back Big Daddy (who does not appear in the original act three),
who tells a coarse joke as a storm breaks out; Brick does
a turn-about (insisted on by Kazan) and becomes a cheering section
for Maggie and her lie about conceiving, and the act ends with
a truly corny line, mercifully omitted in the current production,
which at least restores the original final line.
Williams explains, “I wanted Kazan to
direct the play and . . . I was fearful I would lose his interest.”
Regarding his changing the character of Brick in act three to
suit Kazan, Williams states, “I felt that the moral paralysis
of Brick was a root thing in his tragedy.. . .because I don’t
believe that a conversation, however revelatory, ever effects
so immediate a change in the heart or even conduct in a person
in Brick’s state of spiritual disrepair.” Had Page consulted
Kazan’s autobiography A Life regarding the rewrite, he
would have learned that Kazan also regretted the change: “I took
liberties with his work to yield to my own taste and my overriding
So we have a somewhat flawed yet compelling
production because of the power of act two and the excellence
of most of the cast, among whom also should be mentioned Clive
Carter as Gooper, Brick’s grasping lawyer brother (probably based
on Williams’s lawyer brother Dakin) and Abigail McKern as his
malicious wife Mae. The evocative setting is by Maria Bjornson.
Bill Kenwright, noted for worthwhile productions (he brought in
“Ghosts” earlier this season), is the producer.