A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

“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 tendencies.”

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.