That much is clear from the first moment of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, currently playing at the Richard Rogers Theater. This revival of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1955 play about sex and lies – no videotape – in the South is loaded with innuendo and insults, as well as plenty of alcohol. With movie star Scarlett Johansson in one of the leading – and very sexual – roles, the temperatures have been running high amongst the audience members, even if the bed onstage remains ice cold.
Williams’ personal favorite, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof centers around a wealthy Southern family, the head of which is dying of cancer. Big Daddy’s children Gooper and Brick have visited the palatial family home, along with their wives and Gooper’s children. Tensions are running high in the house, as Big Daddy’s doctor has lied to him and his wife, and he believes himself to be healthy, while his children and their wives are secretly waging a private and fierce battle for his inheritance.
Brick (a solidly understated Benjamin Walker) and his wife Maggie (Johansson) are childless, much to the sadness of Brick’s parents and the delight of Gooper’s wife Mae, who flaunts her five children’s charms to manipulate her in-laws. (Emily Bergl plays Mae, perfecting her passive-aggressive Southern “gentility” that masks her all-too-evident greed.) Throughout the first act, we learn that Brick will not make love to his wife and is punishing her for an indiscretion with his best friend Skipper, whose death he continues to mourn, masking his pain with alcohol.
Maggie suffers greatly from her husband’s neglect, alternating between pleading with him to love her and vainly attempting to lure him back into bed with her physical charms. Johansson gives a solid performance as the spurned wife, portraying both the steely veneer she has built to protect herself from disappointment as well as her feminine vulnerability she reveals, accidentally as well as deliberately, at certain moments. One of my favorite moments occurred when, dressed in a lacy silk negligee, Maggie sat in front of a mirror, brushing her hair and applying make up, while saying cutting insults about her sister-in-law.
Johansson’s accent, and her voice overall, sound strained at times, but Maggie is strained. Trapped in a loveless marriage, she is unable to divorce her wealthy husband because has no money of her own, but she and her husband have no guarantee they will inherit Big Daddy’s wealth due to their lack of children. Children, and women’s responsibility to produce them, are a dominant theme in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, as both Big Daddy and Big Mama ask Brick and Maggie frankly about their sex life and why they have not reproduced, and Maggie masks her disappointment and desire to be a mother with hostility, referring to Mae as a “monster of fertility” and her children as “no-necked monsters.” She says herself that she has become “hard, frantic, and cruel” due to the disappointment of her marriage, but the only way to supposedly earn her husband’s affection again is to be as sexy and feminine as possible. No wonder Maggie is catty; she is a prisoner in an situation that is impossible to win.
As Brick, Maggie’s spiteful, loathing husband, Walker gives a performance of impressive depth portraying despair and rage, both of which motivate him to seek escape in drinking. He remains unresponsive to Maggie for the first act, merely tolerating her attempts to connect with him, but his actual pain and suffering comes to the surface when he and Big Daddy have a private conversation in Act Two. Confronted with the possibility he may have been in love with Skipper, his best friend from college whose suicide drove Brick to drinking. Walker demonstrates actual rage, shouting and snarling at his father, as well as portraying Brick’s helplessness, which is personified by his ankle injury and dependence on a crutch. When his father takes his crutch away from him, Brick resorts to crawling on the floor like an infant.
Big Daddy is played by Ciaran Hinds, who never fully registers as a Southern patriarch. At times his accent is difficult to understand and the impact of his lines are lost in the delivery. While his vivaciousness is supposed to be equal to that of Maggie’s, even when he celebrates his supposedly clean bill of health and shares his plans of how to enjoy the rest of his life, his energy and enthusiasm never ring true. Even when he does confront Brick about his drinking, in one of the great father-son showdowns of drama, the impact of the scene feels lacking; something is not quite there.
Big Daddy’s wife is played by the brassy dame Debra Monk, whose affection for her husband is not reciprocated. Monk, who has been delightful in several Broadway musicals, seems too confident and sure of herself to play a neglected Southern wife. But her feelings for her husband, and her pain when he spurns her, are evident. When Big Daddy, perhaps enthused by the lie from his doctor and striving to prove his masculinity or status, dresses her down in front of the entire family and staff, the scene is painful to witness.
Staged on Christopher Oram’s set, with period costumes by Julie Wei, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a lush, sensual production that offers powerful insight into the gender roles of the times. When Brick tells Maggie she would be better off taking a lover, she refuses, citing her love for him as the reason. I found that love believable, but also tragic, as it was clear to the audience that Brick did not feel any sexual love for his wife. The definition of Maggie by her body – its appeal, its ability to reproduce and provide offspring – is not surprising, but that does not lessen the sadness it inspires. Big Mama is constantly called fat by her husband, and Mae is defined by her role as mother, nothing more. Maggie’s weariness with this life and the role she plays it in it is evident, never more than when she says in a resigned tone, “I’m dressed, all dressed. There’s nothing else for me to do.”
But the truth of Maggie’s condition is hidden, glossed over and indistinct, just like the curtains that surround the stage. Flimsy and sheer, they soften the hard edges of the stage and the set, hiding the truth – that the bed center stage is still empty – just like Maggie and Brick strive to do on this hot summer night.