“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” claws its way through dark, delicious family drama
By Sarah Protzman
Sometime in the 90 minutes before mayhem ensues, Lisa Arrindell Anderson likes to stand on stage in the Broadhurst Theatre, alone. No ushers, no audience.
“It’s sort of like when you walk into one of those churches that stay open all the time, and nobody’s there,” she says in her dressing room before a sold-out Thursday production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” “You just walk in and you go, ‘Something’s about to happen.’”
What’s about to happen, of course, is the raucous 65th birthday celebration of Southern patriarch Big Daddy Pollitt (James Earl Jones), who doesn’t know he’s dying of cancer — but he will soon enough. His overachieving son, Gooper, and wife, Mae (Anderson), have designs on inheriting the family’s valuable land and are beside themselves to learn if it will go to Big Daddy and Big Mamma’s firstborn and favored son, Brick, and his hypersexual yet childless wife, Maggie.
The latest revival of Tennessee Williams’ sultry story, which opened March 6, is the first to feature an all-black cast, fulfilling a longtime dream of producer Stephen C. Byrd. It’s hard now to imagine anyone else as Brick (Terrence Howard), the achingly detached, has-been athlete and alcoholic whose self-disgust lingers like the stench of garbage, or Maggie, a show-stealing Anika Noni Rose who espouses hopeless love for her bitter husband. As for Anderson, originally from Brooklyn, she says the main appeal of playing Mae in this revival was the A-list cast.
“It really was knowing that I’d get to be on stage with James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad,” Anderson says. Her respect for director Debbie Allen, whom she’d known previously, was also a draw. “So I’m working with all these people, wanting desperately to learn what they have to teach.”
Rashad is a powerhouse as Big Mamma opposite a grumpy, salty Jones. Big Mamma’s 40 years of unrequited devotion mirrors Maggie’s love for Brick, who is as emotionally unavailable as his father, but the two are bonded nonetheless. The first act is essentially a monologue wherein a lingerie-clad Rose showers praise on her patronizing husband: “You’re the only drinkin’ man I know who never seems to put fat on,” she says.
For nearly three hours, playwright Tennessee Williams’ dysfunctional foursome brings us down, and just keeps kicking. It’s dark and delicious and leaves one pining for comic relief, of which the audience gets some — but plainly wants more. Anderson, joined for the interview by her on-stage husband, Giancarlo Esposito, says all the guffawing is a protective reaction to the pain Williams presents in bulk.
“We’d rather not have the laughs, for the most part,” Esposito agrees. “But it’s a different experience for [every audience]. They’re having their personal experience… but if we don’t play for the laugh, then it’s OK.”
In a decidedly unfunny, calculated moment, Gooper turns up the heat on Big Mamma to award him Big Daddy’s land. She explodes: “I’m his wife!” she barks through tears. “Not his widow!” But situational selfishness aside, Esposito says he believes his character means well.
“I don’t think Gooper’s a bad person, I really don’t,” he says. “He’s always tried to better himself,” despite the wounds from being the second favorite. He continues: “I really do think that Gooper is — is sad.”
And as for Gooper’s doting wife, Mae, a determined mother of six who tends to nag and carry on, Anderson says she sees more layers in her character than before and credits Williams’ writing for such breathing room.
“When I read this part I thought, ‘Oh! She is awful! She is so mean!’” Anderson says as she mattes her complexion with pressed powder. “About two weeks of that in rehearsal, and as an actor, you find there’s not a lot of place to go.” Mae is no longer that simple to her now, Anderson says.
Allen’s take on “Cat,” with its single set — not unlike Rashad’s on “The Cosby Show” – and original foul language intact (much of it was removed when the play debuted in the 1950s), is engaging and has a lineup to purr for. Esposito says there are subtle, “soulful” changes to the play’s tone and nomenclature, but ultimately he and Anderson agree the story does not change because of the cast’s ethnicity.
“If we can find that cultural experience and idiom, so to speak, within what [Williams] wrote, I think it does nothing but speak to support the playwright in terms of his universal message,” Esposito says. “So I would say it doesn’t change at all, but it changes everything.”