I can’t stand dysfunctional family dramas of the Tennessee Williams/ Eugene O’Neill type. Williams I’ve seen too many productions of, that horrible Glass Menagerie thing, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (even the film adaptation with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor). Awful stuff. Irredeemable stuff. Cat multiple times possibly.
That changed when I was given tickets to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Drury Lane in Oak Brook. I expected the worst, but at least figured on stopping at Barnes & Noble in the mall first.
For one thing the show was well cast. Brick (the Paul Newman role) looked like Brick, something Adonis like albeit too young; and his wife, Maggie, supposed to be sexy and attractive, actually was. Smoldering. It makes a difference to the roles when the actors lack the prescribed (and talked about) characteristics.
But the stars were Big Daddy (Matt DeCaro) and Big Mama (Cindy Gold), both parts that require some range and I’d only seen them portrayed by actors of very narrow capability. Big Daddy is especially difficult to play (or direct I suppose) in that he is almost a thoroughly unlikable man, yet has to show himself seamlessly as sympathetic. It’s the type of role actors usually play with an on/off switch: now I’m detestable, now I’m likable.
I’ve known the famous “mendacity” line since I was a student, and its execution, prior to this production, always felt clunkerish—but at Drury Lane all its dramatic pathos and import came out. The plot is a bit contrived, and of its time to be sure; but drama depends on contrived and implausible plots which the “suspension of disbelief” allows for, all else being well-executed.
The set was good & production values, etc. But the acting carried it.
So now everything I knew turns out to be wrong.
Also unexpectedly, the production has given me pause to think about my preconceptions about color-blind casting and the like. August Wilson notoriously suggested that Black actors should be automatically excluded from performing in any plays of European or White-American origin (unless, I suppose, the part was specifically tailored for a particular ethnicity). My view has been contrary. As I have noted, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is not dependent on the skin color of its cast (however he or his estate might have seen fit to intervene), and for me the definitive production was that directed by Ron O.J. Parson at Chicago’s Court Theatre recently.
(In a recent controversy, Parson directed Blood Knot at American Players Theatre in which a casting choice was foist upon him which might have horrified August Wilson: a white actor portraying a light-skinned (and “passable”) Black man who squares off with his darker-skinned brother. Parson defended the choice saying he “wanted… a white guy saying those hateful things and then representing all the hate that’s in the world. For me, the payoff of that one time when he uses ‘n’ word in that scene—the payoff is more relevant if it is a white guy.”)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, set in “a plantation home in the Mississippi Delta,” reeks of what we would call “white privilege” (the words an anachronism if transposed to the time in which the action is set), and that comprises the warp and woof of Williams’ exploration—even dissection—in the play. Color-blind casting might have weakened the play; in fact productions of Williams that I have seen have all occurred in Chicago, where “anything goes” casting is the norm more than exceptional. Perhaps Williams is best played in hoity-toity suburbia? (I exaggerate and stereotype for the sake of brevity.)
I’m not ready to concede to August Wilson. Let a black actor hew the part of Big Daddy and see what he makes of it. Given the direction of a Parson why wouldn’t it fly? A woman? Give it a try! (In either case the non-conventional casting is more likely to cause a distraction than make a statement, but nothing says that audience expectations must be pandered to.)
Merce Cunningham knew that dancers of all body shapes and sizes—not hampered by age or disability we might add—deserve their time on stage as much as those happening to fill some arbitrary standard of physical acceptability; though training (ours) has rendered uniform body-types easier to watch.
A fat, slovenly Maggie however? A Maggie of no allure? That might be harder to pull off.