The historic African-American production of Tennessee Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” directed by Debbie Allen, although not the crowning achievement one had hoped, scores as entertainment none the less. Approved by Williams’ estate for Broadway the revival has a star studded cast of charismatic actors, who understand the passions of Williams’ dysfunctional family, allowing the magic of the playwright’s language to overcome Allen’s uninspired direction.
This is clearly not what Williams had in mind when he conceived the Mississippi Delta dynasty, but by not making the story time specific to the 1950’s, when it was originally set, you could actually imagine an all black Pollitt family existing around the turn of our current century. The possibility of an African – American family accumulating that much land and money, however remote, is not impossible to imagine. The themes of the three act drama, denial, lust, greed, and mendacity, remain the same. The rhythms are somewhat different, but the spirit of the text lives on as the Pollitts draw battle lines in the struggle to control Big Daddy’s plantation in the face of his presumed fatal illness.
Allen’s rather ordinary staging reveals few surprises. Her inexperience as a director of serious drama shows in the evening’s lack of subtlety. Her numerous clichéd and tasteless choices detract rather than add. The naturalism of Williams’ dialogue coupled with his extravagant monologues can be tricky. Allen’s imposed melodramatic flourishes, intended to punctuate the text, feel more appropriate to dance (she excels as a choreographer) than classic Williams. The effect of highlighting selected passages with dramatic lighting actually disengages us emotionally from the unfolding action.
The spirited ensemble instinctively soars nevertheless grabbing hold of Williams magnificent language as if his words were the air that sustains them blurring Allen’s missteps with their consummate skill. Despite the shortcomings the evening has a ring of authenticity that feels robustly real and this is a major accomplishment.
The multiple award wining cast includes a theatrical legend James Earl Jones, who was a recent Kennedy Center honoree, as Big Daddy and a bona fide movie star Terrence Howard (Hustle And Flow and Crash) making an impressive Broadway debut with three Tony award winning actors.
Howard’s restrained understated performance as alcoholic Brick, a disillusioned former football player tormented with questions of his possible homosexuality, is the focus of Allen’s “Cat.” He drinks to avoid the emotions he would rather not confront after the death of his best friend and teammate, Skipper.
James Earl Jones is commanding as Big Daddy delivering a finely nuanced performance that boils with cruelty, yet displays unexpected flashes of tenderness. This is especially apparent in the second act confrontations with his son that is the heart this production. Their powerful scenes together give the play a loving core and we understand these two men are bound together in their common disgust for mendacity, which seems to run in their blood.
Phylicia Rashad’s heartfelt performance as Big Mama, fluttering about with restless nervous energy is a standout as well. She displays a woman adept at denying the hurts that Big Daddy relentlessly hurls at her. His abuse has not destroyed the deep love she still feels for him.
As Maggie the cat Anika Noni Rose is a sensual beauty poured into Jane Greenwood’s figure hugging dresses that includes the essential satin slip. Confident of her charms and determined never to be poor again her Maggie is a fierce competitor, but lacks the needed desperation to expose her vulnerability.
Williams wrote in a 1954 letter, “Vitality is the hero of the play!” His masterpiece brims with vitality like you have never seen it before.
By Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published in Dan’s Papers
“Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” opened on March 6, 2008 at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W 44th St between Broadway and Eighth Ave. Tickets are available by calling 212-239-6200 or at the Box Office.