I was up in Massachusetts for the 4th of July weekend at my aunt’s, and on the evening of July 4th, I took the Mass Pike west, far west, to the Berkshires to see the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by David Auburn, who is not only a gifted director but a Pulitzer-prize winning playwright (for Proof.) He’s directed a couple of productions in the Berkshires, including Sick and Anna Christie. The main stage is nestled in the middle of the green mountains, trees curving in around the theatre (the theatre has been there since the early 20th century.) It’s a beautiful space.
The production starred Rebecca Brooksher as Maggie, Michael Raymond-James (mostly known for his role on True Blood and here, coming back to the stage after 8 years away) as Brick, Linda Gehringer as Big Mama, and Jim Beaver (from Deadwood and, of course, Supernatural) as Big Daddy. Filling out the cast of characters was Jenn Harris as Mae (that “monster of fertility”, as Maggie calls her), Timothy Gulan as Gooper, and David Adkins and Brian Russell as the tipsy preacher and the doctor, respectively. Jason Sherwood did the evocative and non-realistic scenic design which did what a set should do: put the audience in the right MOOD for the play the second they walk in the theatre doors. Dominating the stage was a gigantic white bed, and surrounding it were four old pillars leading up to a white ceiling panel with a chandelier hanging. Everything was open: no walls or doors. Along flats on the three sides of the stage stretched a horizontal panel showing a blue sky filled with puffy white clouds. The whole thing looked like a slightly-dissipated Southern summer dream.
Rebecca Brooksher as Maggie, Michael Raymond-James as Brick. Photo by Emma Rothenberg-Ware
The superb production in the Berkshires was an important reminder of the sheer stature of this play. Tommy Lee Jones (who once played Brick) said, when he came and spoke at my school, that he thought Cat may be Tennessee’s “only truly GREAT play.” Tennessee Williams’ body of work is one of the most extraordinary in 20th century American theatre, but I tend to agree with Jones. Maybe it’s the structure that seems like such a radical departure for Williams, but the themes too – and the MOOD – is also unique for Williams. The play unfolds in Three Acts, but the action onstage plays out in real time (it could be played all in one with no scene-breaks). The script is a massive symphony with multiple “movements,” one instrument dominating here, another instrument added there, a theme rising before submerging itself into another theme. One character steps forward (metaphorically) in each act and talks for 5 or 6 pages with almost no interruption. Cases are stated. Counter-point cases stated. It’s choral in structure.
Jim Beaver, Rebecca Brooksher, Brian Russell, David Adkins, Michael Raymond-James, Linda Gehringer. Photo by Emma Rothenburg-Ware
From the very first moment of the very first scene in this production, with Maggie (the astonishing Rebecca Brooksher) racing around the room, shouting to her husband offstage, ranting about the “no-necked monsters” (brother Gooper’s 5 children) downstairs, all while trying to get the stain out of her dress, re-applying makeup, rolling down her stockings, rolling on new stockings, all as she talked non-stop in a frantic and irritable (and very funny) way, even as he refuses to respond … I knew that this was a production that had (to quote my acting teacher in college) “its fingers on the pulse of the playwright.” You could feel it. Instantly. Brooksher understood Maggie’s frustration, pain, and humiliation (more than anything else, Maggie is humiliated), and every line shimmered with some or all of those emotions. But on top of all of that, was Maggie’s life force, her hope, her determination to make things right with her husband, to say the difficult things, do the difficult things. It’s life or death for Maggie, and Brooksher’s performance is life or death. She was phenomenal. And so so smart with the language. (If there was a joke to be found, she found it.) She made Maggie’s terror at being poor comprehensible, visceral. You could see Maggie as a child, a barefoot girl in a dirty dress. Maggie’s not a gold-digger. She’s practical.
There’s so much going on in Maggie’s determination to get her husband to sleep with her, her desperation about why he won’t and what that means, her guilt about what happened with Skipper, her terror of being “old without money” (she has that great line: “You can be young without money. But you can’t be OLD without money.”) and her NEED to have a child so that she can solidify her position in the family. It’s extremely complex, and it all happens simultaneously. No wonder so many actresses are damn near “sunk” by Maggie. (Tennessee Williams joked once in a letter that actresses were “ruined” playing his roles, and he felt bad about it, but what could he do?) It’s a monster of a part, and watching Brooksher in action was awe-inspiring.
Michael Raymond-James was a revelation as Brick. Every Brick is different. Every actor is going to approach it in a different way, every production is going to have a different “take.” Because Brick is like that: Brick is a VOID. You could fill that void with anything, or you could leave it be, and accept it as a VOID. And that’s what is so terrifying about Brick. So difficult for actors to capture, maybe because actors feel like they need to, you know, be ACT-ive. Brick’s absence (even when he is present), his passivity, his fatalism, IS active … but still, the challenges are multifold. Raymond-James’ Brick was so absent up on that stage that he became (as he should be) the focal point of every scene, every character. Everyone else talks so much and talks at the same time in a wild cacophony, and Brick sits in the background, cast on his foot, drinking. The big question: Why? Why does Brick drink so much? Why? – is the question on everyone’s minds. What has HAPPENED to him? I think Brick may be the scariest character that Williams ever wrote, and he wrote some pretty scary characters.
Rebecca Brooksher as Maggie, Michael Raymond-James as Brick. Photo by Emma Rothenburg-Ware
In every moment, every gesture, every interaction, you could feel Raymond-James’ Brick needing that drink. At one point, I noticed he was about finished with one glass, and I actually found myself getting anxious for him. He needs to fill up that glass! It was such a codependent reaction it was awesome. Raymond-James also found the dry humor in Brick, those single lines sailing into the mountains of texts from Maggie or Big Daddy, cool and dry and … airy … nothing touching earth. Floating. In the stage directions in the script for Cat, Williams often puts the word “vaguely” before Brick’s lines. (Williams was a big one for detailed emotional notes throughout his scripts.) It takes a LOT to “engage” Brick, to wake him from his stupor. Maggie is unable to do it in Act One, except for when she makes the mistake of mentioning Skipper. Big Daddy breaks through in Act Two, and the result is explosive. Brick is far far gone at the time the play starts. The best and truest thing in his life is gone. He is disgusted with mendacity, disgusted that his relationship with Skipper is tarnished by other people “calling it dirty”. His alcoholism is ACTIVE. He drinks until he feels what he calls “the click.” Peace comes with “the click” and he can’t stop drinking until he feels it. “The click” is one of the most chilling images in Williams’ entire canon. Even the other characters in the script acknowledge how scary the term is: when Brick tells Big Daddy what “the click” is, Big Daddy responds, “Jesus!”
Another thing that was so great about Raymond-James’ performance was you could see, over the course of the three acts, how drunk he got. It was a progression and he, the actor, was totally in charge of it. At first he was buzzed, and then at some point he got so sloppy he could barely get up off the floor. His inhibitions started to fray, his balance got even worse, and his emotions started to bubble up closer to the surface. It happened in real-time on the stage and was reminiscent of those moments at wild parties where suddenly people are no longer buzzed but wasted and it seems to happen instantaneously. Like: “wow, when did THAT happen?” Raymond-James clocked every step of that drinking-journey, but he did so in a way that it looked effortless. It was happening TO him. I can’t remember who said it – maybe John Wayne? or Dean Martin? – that the way to “play drunk” is not to weave around the stage. The way to “play drunk” is to do your DAMNEDEST to walk in the straightest line ever. Do THAT and you’ll look drunk to an audience. (Actors wanting to play drunk: Watch any Gena Rowlands drunk-scene. She’s in a class all her own but if you’re going to learn, you might as well learn from the best!)
I loved the placement of Raymond-James’ voice. There was a drawl to it, not just in accent (although that was beautiful and natural too), but in feel and mood. That “vague”-ness again. When Big Daddy gives him a hard time (understatement), Brick doesn’t fight back. Brick agrees with everything everyone says. Yes. He’s a drunk. He’s a loser. He’s a let-down. He agrees. He just doesn’t care. To not care to THAT degree, and still be a compelling figure onstage, is one of the major challenges of the role. Brick is filled with self-pity and yet at the time of the play he is beyond open expressions of it. You ache for him, especially because you can still see the confident golden-boy athlete that he once was. When Raymond-James exploded at his father, defending his relationship with Skipper, what you also could see was panic and terror that his father “thought so too” (that he and Skipper were romantically involved). Brick is a toweringly tragic figure, and Raymond-James gives a heartbreaking performance.
Rebecca Brooksher as Maggie, Michael Raymond-James as Brick. Photo by Emma Rothenberg-Ware
One of the things that Williams says about Big Mama in the script is that she is “sincere” and Linda Gehringer was so fantastic showing the sincerity of this loud-mouthed anxious worry-wart Mama-Bear, racing around the house trying to keep everything together. Big Daddy says to Brick later that we all have to live with “mendacity”: Mendacity is the oxygen we breathe. Big Mama has her own web of lies she has created, and she – like Maggie – is ferocious in her determination to LIVE, despite the lies, or even because of the lies. If that means pretending that her husband isn’t as cruel to her as he actually is, then so be it. If that means engaging in gossip about Brick and Maggie, then so be it. She has her reasons. As obnoxious as she is, when Big Daddy turns on her, you cringed and ached for her. She looked, suddenly, smudged and shattered. Gehringer galumphed around the stage in her bright green outfit, always on the verge of either tears or bright uproarious laughter, sometimes at the same time. And, like Williams suggested: all of it was sincere. Beautiful work! Big Daddy observes to Brick later that his two sons both married women who had the same “anxious look”. Big Daddy might not see it but he married a woman with that look too.
Linda Gehringer, Rebecca Brooksher, Jenn Harris, Timothy Gulan. Photo by Emma Rothenburg-Ware
The reason I went to see this production (and I feel so fortunate I was in Massachusetts anyway and could get over to see it) was to see Jim Beaver as “Big Daddy.” Jim Beaver is well known to Deadwood fans, as well as to Supernatural fans for his portrayal of Bobby Singer. It was also so great to see him as the Victorian-era patriarch in Crimson Peak (my Ebert review here), and I was honored to interview Guillermo del Toro onstage at Ebertfest and hear of how Del Toro only had Jim Beaver in mind for that role, and how much he loved him as an actor. The thought of Jim Beaver as Big Daddy – another towering role in American theatre – was thrilling. Tennessee Williams holds Big Daddy back. Big Daddy is talked about constantly through Act One. He looms in everyone’s minds but he does not appear until the final moment in Act One (Auburn gave Big Daddy a real star entrance: Beaver swaggered onto the stage, and then stood upstage center, waiting to enter the room downstage. Blackout. The anticipation was intense! Let this intermission end!)
Big Daddy is a tyrant. A careless and cruel man in a lot of ways. Rude and blunt and all the rest. He does not suffer fools. He is not a soft man. He doesn’t care if he’s talking to a child or his wife; that person is going to hear the Truth. He’s intimidating and everybody races around trying to please him, competing for his attention. He sees all. The only person who doesn’t get the full force of his wrath is Maggie. Perhaps he looks at Maggie and sees himself as a young man: a poor boy, a striver, determined to wrench his way out of desperation and poverty, whatever it took. He gets Maggie. He does NOT get his own son. Or, he has a pretty good idea what’s happened, but such things aren’t easily talked about, especially in a time when the language for “gay” or “being gay is fine if that’s what you are” wasn’t even created yet. But Big Daddy knows.
Act Two is a masterpiece in and of itself. With constant interruptions, and people eavesdropping at the doors, Big Daddy tries to get Brick to talk about his drinking, the “why” of it, which inevitably leads to a conversation about Skipper. Brick flips out at every mention of Skipper’s name: Maggie, Big Daddy … they are all just TARNISHING the one purely good thing in his life and he cannot bear it. He fights like a tiger. But Big Daddy – who has just been given a clean bill of health (or at least that’s what HE thinks) – has decided to get to the bottom of this damn thing once and for all. When Big Daddy reveals that he knows that his son and Skipper were probably in love, it’s a shocker, to us but especially to Brick, who can’t believe it, but the biggest revelation comes in what follows: what Big Daddy tries to say is, “It’s okay, son. I’ve seen it all. Weren’t those two men who owned this plantation before me like that, too? They slept in the same bed. Big whup.” Brick, because of his internalized ravaging homophobia, can’t bear any of this. (You’re comparing me to those two dirty old queers?) “YOU THINK SO TOO” Brick screams at his father, over and over … and over. Raymond-James looked like a little kid in those moments, especially because he was wearing pajamas and a bathrobe. Big Daddy is bold enough, courageous enough, to say, “I DON’T CARE IF YOU ALL WERE IN LOVE. JUST STOP DRINKING.”
Beaver commanded that stage, Lord of the Manor, watch-chain, spats, hat, tie-pin, a man who expects to dominate every room he’s in. Beaver did not soft-pedal Big Daddy’s crude-ness, his lecherous lascivious side, or the cruelty with which he turns on his wife. Beaver made it all funny and awful at the same time (Big Daddy in a nutshell).
Beaver’s urgency in the scene with Brick was an object lesson for actors in how to play an objective with everything you’ve got. Every scene doesn’t have 10 objectives. Most good scenes have one strong objective, and in that scene, Big Daddy has one objective: get through to my lost son. Watching Beaver try all these different tactics in trying to achieve his objective was gorgeous, tense, thrilling. I was almost afraid to breathe in case I missed something. Big Daddy tries to talk to Brick man to man, he tells stories from his own life (including a disturbing one about a 5-year-old prostitute who propositioned him in Italy), he tries to empathize with Brick’s dissatisfaction, he speculates (“You started drinking after Skipper died …”) hoping Brick will either confirm or deny, he steals Brick’s crutch (a couple of times, I think) to keep Brick from going to get another drink, he bargains with his son via alcohol dispensing (“If you tell me what you’re disgusted with, I’ll give you a drink”), he opens up about his own fear of death and how he feels he has a new lease on life (the suggestion being; If it’s not over for me, then it’s not over for you, boy), he commiserates with Brick over how awful Gooper and his wife are, he asks how Maggie was in bed … It’s endless. These are all tactics, coming from a place of despair over the state of his son and his helplessness in the face of it. Big Daddy has a WALL of text, text that goes on in an unstoppable flow for the majority of Act Two, with intermittent non-committal responses from Brick … and Beaver was just masterful in managing this! Every moment specific, no nuance lost, every repetitive moment (“Tell me WHY you are disgusted” “Tell me WHY you drink”) getting more intense each time it returned. I KNOW the script and I had no idea what would happen next.
I was watching a Father and a Son go to places emotionally they had never gone before in the entirety of their relationship. It’s terrifying for both of them. It’s a duet, that scene, and Beaver and Raymond-James were so in sync (even when in conflict) in what they were attempting to create. You cannot play a strong objective as an actor without an equally strong obstacle coming back at you. You may want something but your scene partner is equally determined not to give it to you. When both sides are played 100%: boom, you have conflict, you have the scene. The closer Big Daddy got to the truth about Brick and Skipper, the more desperate Brick became for a drink, for escape, for oblivion.
It’s an extraordinary piece of writing on the page, that’s for sure. But it takes two geniuses like Beaver and Raymond-James to bring it so urgently to life.
Michael Raymond-James as Brick, Jim Beaver as Big Daddy. Photo by Emma Rothenburg-Ware
In terms of the ending (more on that in a bit), whether or not you find any hope in it is probably dependent on the hand life has dealt you. Glass half-full/empty? Optimist/pessimist? The brilliance – and beautiful complexity – is that the play doesn’t come down on one side or the other (Williams’ plays rarely do). What you are left with is the mess of human life, the havoc wrought by repression and “mendacity”, and the desperate drive of every character on that stage to either push forward into life or retreat from life entirely. Death is omnipresent: unwanted death and death sought for.
During the development period of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1954/55, Tennessee Williams and director Elia Kazan (whom Williams hand-picked for the job) got into a battle royale over the ending of the script. It’s a well-documented argument, with Tennessee Williams’ letters on one side, and Kazan’s letters on the other. Reading both sides of the exchange is so illuminating, not only about the script for Cat but about what a creative process actually looks like. (For more of the background of the production of Cat, you can read this big tribute post of mine, filled with quotes.)
The source of the disagreement between Kazan and Williams was Act Three. Big Daddy disappeared entirely in Williams’ original Act Three, except for a cry of pain offstage. Kazan felt, strongly, that Big Daddy needed to return in Act Three, otherwise the audience would be wondering where he was. Such a strong character needed to return. Kazan also felt that there needed to be some “change” in Brick by the end, to provide a counterpoint to the nihilistic death-wish of the rest of it so the audience could “root” for him. Brick was (is) a mystery, and Kazan wanted more clarity. (Williams’ letters to Kazan about the character of Brick are amazing.) Now, Kazan was not a “happy ending” kind of guy, but he felt that there was something so unexplained in Brick that the play suffered. Williams disagreed on all counts.
As is obvious to anyone who knows the script, Kazan won that war: Williams re-wrote Act Three to include Big Daddy, and also slightly adjusted the ending so that instead of Brick, Maggie had the last line, her famous line starting with “Oh, you weak and beautiful people …” Brick is still laid low but in the “Kazan” version you feel like Maggie is maybe strong enough for the both of them. Maybe her prophecy will come to pass. The play opened on Broadway that way, and was a huge hit. But then, when the play was finally published, Williams included both versions of the final act, with a note of explanation on the “battle”, so that he could “let the reader decide.” (Kazan was very hurt by this. Their relationship survived – to the very end – but he still was very hurt by this.) In terms of what the audience is LEFT with at curtain, the two versions could not be more different. Williams’ final moment of Act Three (Brick’s line closing it out as opposed to Maggie’s) works better, in my opinion, but then I’m pretty pessimistic (I like to call it “realistic”) about serious systemic change in human beings. I admit it.
Williams’ original ending has Maggie climbing on top of Brick in bed, chanting in an almost incantatory way about how the “weak and beautiful people” need the stronger ones to take them by the hand, and she will do that for Brick and she will take care of him and he will give her a baby. She ends that small speech by declaring, “Oh, Brick, I DO love you.” Brick, lying beneath her, says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that were true.” Blackout. (Big Daddy says the exact same words to Big Mama earlier in the play, and so it is a soul-crushing echo coming from Brick’s mouth, and is its own disastrous prophecy.) This was what Kazan took issue with. Shouldn’t Brick change just a little bit? Who are we supposed to “root for” if not Brick?
As far as I can tell, director David Auburn blended together elements from “Kazan’s ending” and “Williams’ ending” for the production in the Berkshire Theatre. Big Daddy returned to the stage in Act Three (Kazan), and Brick’s final fatalistic line “Wouldn’t it be funny if that were true” was added back in (Williams). It worked beautifully. It feels like that’s the way it was supposed to go, and I love that (in my opinion) both Kazan and Williams were right (although neither of them were 100% right). Kazan’s ending (giving Maggie the final line) is not as effective as Williams’ original that closes with Brick’s line, but I also think Kazan was right that Big Daddy had to return to the stage.
When Brick said his final line, and the house lights then slowly went down, making it clear to the audience that this was it, that was the end, I heard a woman down the row from me, gasp with pain, almost an “Oh no” sound. I think up until the final second she had hoped – hoped! – that Brick would put his glass down and take Maggie in his arms. Of course she hoped that. AND: her hope is the BEST part of us as humans. It may be doomed hope, or delusional, or filled with mendacity, but God help us if we ever abandon it entirely.
At one point in the correspondence between Williams and Kazan over the ending, Williams wrote:
The play was not just negative, since it was packed with rage, and rage is not a negative thing in life. It is positive, dynamic! … [Brick’s] one of the rich and lucky! Got everything without begging, was admired and loved by all. Hero! Beauty! — Two people fell in love with him beyond all bounds. Skipper and Maggie. He built up one side of his life around Skipper, another around Maggie – Conflict: Disaster! — One love ate up the other, naturally, humanly, without intention, just did! Hero is faced with truth and collapses before it … Maggie, the cat, has to give him some instruction in how to hold your position on a hot tin roof, which is human existence which you’ve got to accept on any terms whatsoever … Vitality is the hero of the play! — The character you can “root for” … is not a person but a quality in people that makes them survive.
It makes me want to cry and it’s a strange thing and I’m not sure I can describe it. When I go to see a well-known play, even if it’s not a very good production, I can still FEEL that great text thrumming on beneath, indestructible. I’ve seen high school productions of Midsummer Night’s Dream or Streetcar Named Desire that destroyed me, even with amateur teenagers acting up a storm and not understanding what they’re saying half the time, because the play itself is so monumental that there it is … still. Shining through. The kids GET it. They rise to the occasion of it. They feel its greatness too even if they are not skilled enough yet to make it come across.
But then when you see an excellent production with professional actors, like the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof I just saw in the Berkshires, the sense of being in the presence of an eternal and dauntingly brilliant piece of writing, something other playwrights – even very good ones – would KILL to achieve in their own work – is even more tremendous. You are in the presence of greatness. And you are grateful that you are there to witness it.