Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Shaw Festival

Tennessee Williams

(May 11, 2011)  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is on the short list of plays that we’ll happily see anytime, anywhere. Such glorious poetry — and what else is it but poetry, for who really talks like the characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?  It’s magical how Tennessee Williams brought his characters alive by giving them lines no one would utter in ordinary speech and making them have conversations no ordinary people would have.  The characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are as painfully real as can be.

In the Shaw Festival’s 2011 production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which we saw in a mesmerizing preview performance last weekend, the poetry flows like honey from the lips of Moya O’Connell (a treat for the eyes as Maggie the Cat), Gray Powell (Brick), and Jim Mezon (Big Daddy).  Their characters could hardly be more vivid.

Anyone who has seen the bowdlerized movie version (Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor) will find this a much darker (and more explicit) show.  The long first act shows us only Brick and his sexually frustrated wife (the scenes of the play all take place in their bedroom in Big Daddy’s Mississippi delta mansion house), but through Maggie’s chatter we meet the rest of the Pollitt family as well.  Maggie and Brick also introduce us to a major character who never appears in the play, Brick’s late friend Skipper, and to the play’s great mystery: what Brick and Skipper really felt for one another, why Skipper took his own life, and why Brick no longer has any interest in anything but drinking bourbon until he feels the “click”.

The play’s first act leaves us persuaded that there is nothing left between Maggie and Brick. But the second act teases us with the notion that there is still some palpable affection between Brick and his father, Big Daddy (Jim Mezon).  (The mere appearance of Mezon, once again a superb stage presence, noticeably ratchets up the play’s energy level.)  Father and son find common ground with their mutual detestation of “mendacity,” but Big Daddy’s ego leaves him unable to penetrate Brick’s alcoholic retreat.

Again and again, love is offered and spurned.  Maggie adores and desires a husband who tells her that he can’t stand her.  Big Daddy loves a son who’s weary of listening to his father “gas” about himself.  We are shocked at Maggie’s abasement when Brick rejects her; even more appalling are the scenes of deliberate cruelty in which Big Daddy insults his “fat” wife (who loves him) and humiliates her in front of the family and friends gathered for his birthday party.

Brick, Big Daddy, and Big Mama

As Big Daddy’s feckless, foolish wife, Corrine Koslo manages, against strong odds, to to arouse our sympathy for a thoroughly unlikeable character.  As Brick, Gray Powell gives the best performance we’ve seen from him at the Shaw Festival; it must be a challenge to play a character whose range of emotional response is constrained by his chronically high alcohol level.  We particularly appreciated Patrick McManus in the difficult role of Brick’s older brother Gooper, scheming with his fecund wife Mae (Nicole Underhay, also pitch-perfect) to get what he sees as justice from a father who has always preferred his younger brother.

We know we’re in danger of deep waters here, but we couldn’t help thinking how the playwright’s sexuality kept bursting forth at various points throughout the play — and we don’t mean simply the storyline about the attraction between Brick and Skipper.  Was Tennessee Williams repulsed by women’s bodies?  In the first act, Brick tells Maggie he is “disgusted” only seconds after she refers to her breasts and her figure.  Did the playwright feel threatened by sexually aggressive women?  Brick stubbornly resists Maggie’s sexual advances, and Big Daddy has stopped having sex with Big Mama (who likewise “disgusts” him).  And the playwright is clearly revolted by the sexual appetite and fecundity of Gooper’s wife Mae.

The Shaw Festival’s production might disappoint those who expect the lines to be rendered in the accents of the deep South.  But we probably wouldn’t understand a word if they did.  In this production, fortunately, the actors are all intelligible; they slip in and out of their accents just enough to remind us where the play is set.  And they nailed the main thing: the poetry.

Not enough color at the Shaw Festival?

(October 2008) To his dismay, Emsworth has belatedly learned that the diversity police have been hectoring Jackie Maxwell, Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, for not bringing more actors of color, more directors of color, and more plays by playwrights of color, to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The hue and cry is being led by one Andrew Moodie, who is apparently a Canadian playwright of some distinction. (Emsworth makes no pretense of being up on contemporary theater, especially in Canada.) Moodie’s campaign, which he calls “Share the Stage,” was seconded not long ago by J. Kelly Nestruck, the redoubtable theater critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail, who claims he was “suddenly struck” earlier this year with how “white” the Shaw’s company was.

The wedge here is the Shaw Festival’s friendly competition with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, an institution which Nestruck patronizingly says is now up to snuff, diversity-wise.  Jackie Maxwell gets credit for “gender diversity” (what an dreadful phrase!) at the Shaw Festival, but they’re blaming her for not trying hard enough on race.

Well, now — how is she to do this at the Shaw Festival? It’s an institution whose every season is anchored around two plays by Bernard Shaw himself, a white guy who wrote plays about white folks. And all its plays (per the Festival’s “mandate”) are supposed to have been written, or at least set, during Shaw’s lifetime (1856-1950).

We pause for historical reflection.  Here in Rochester, we’re steeped in the American suffrage movement, because Susan B. Anthony lived here and her 19th-century home, now a museum, is here.  History tells us that before the Civil War, abolitionists and suffragettes made common cause.

But Anthony’s relationship with Douglass (together again in bronze in a Rochester park) cooled when black leaders wanted to put women’s rights on hold while civil rights for black people were being consolidated. So there’s a tiny touch of irony when Jackie Maxwell is accused with putting racial diversity on the back burner now that she has gotten “gender diversity” at the Shaw.

There are plenty of new plays by and about people of color. But unless they’re set before 1950, they’re not plays that the Shaw does. So how, exactly, is the Shaw Festival supposed to diversify, color-wise?

Well, Moodie and Nestruck want the Shaw Festival to feature more actors of color in plays by Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Noel Coward. After all, when The Glass Menagerie is played in Bombay, doesn’t it have an Indian cast? When they do Blithe Spirit in Lagos, isn’t the cast Nigerian? There are people of all ethnic backgrounds in Ontario (as in New York State). So if Denzel Washington can play Brutus (see the picture above, with Stratford Festival veteran Colm Feore, in the foreground, as Cassius, in a Washington, D.C. production last year), why can’t there be a black Undershaft at the Shaw Festival?

If that were to be, Emsworth would nominate Derrick Lee Weeden. On the basis of his breath-taking performance as Othello at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater last winter (with Paul Niebanck as Iago), Emsworth ranks Weeden with the best actors we’ve seen in Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, not excluding Christopher Plummer or the late William Hutt. But Weeden is, regrettably, not part of the Shaw’s repertory company, and the Shaw Festival is at a disadvantage in trying to recruit an actor of his ability. (He’s acted with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for many years; see this link.) The Shaw Festival doesn’t do either Shakespeare or contemporary plays, and from 1856 to 1950, there just weren’t that many important plays written by or about people of color.

There’s no reason why actors of color can’t be cast in many Shaw plays, as indeed they sometimes are. As Mr. Nestruck points out, Nikki M. James has one of the lead roles in Caesar and Cleopatra at the Stratford Festival this season. But in many cases, color-blind casting in a Shaw play would tend to confuse audiences and to distort social relationships that are at the heart of the plays.

And many Shaw plays are largely concerned with subtle gradations of class, and with interactions between English people of different ranks of life. Pygmalion is the story of a poor flower girl who encounters a rich, upper-class intellectual. Getting Married (one of the highlights of the Shaw’s 2008 season, highly recommended by Emsworth) has a lot to do with a lower-middle-class greengrocer’s relationship with the family of an English bishop.

The precision with which Shaw sketched class relationships in his plays is at the core of his genius. So how disorienting would it be for audiences if a person of color were cast as either the greengrocer or the bishop in Getting Married? In 1902, could a black greengrocer possibly have been on such familiar terms with an upper-class white family? — we’d be asking ourselves. Or would a white greengrocer really relate in such a way to a black English bishop and his wife? The didactic Bernard Shaw fervently wanted people to think about his plays — but those are not the questions Shaw wanted his audiences to be asking. A director shouldn’t interject race where it would confuse.

Or take Mrs. Warren’s Profession, also at the Shaw Festival this year (see the Emsworth review). The most interesting relationships in the play are between Mrs. Warren, the former courtesan with lower-class origins, and her middle- and upper-class friends (and former clients) in the aristocracy, the arts, and the church. What would happen to the already challenging social dynamics of these relationships if either Mrs. Warren or the men were black actors? Indeed, since the paternity of Mrs. Warren’s daughter is in question, how would it be anything but confusing if all these actors were not of the same race?

Race is already an element in many American plays that the Shaw Festival performs, just as it is in many plays by contemporary black playwrights (like Mr. Moodie, one assumes). Where a character’s ethnicity is part of the play, an ethnically appropriate actor is needed. Would anyone cast a white actor in an August Wilson play? Of course not — black actors are needed to portray African-American culture. Mr. Moodie says one of his plays wasn’t considered by the Shaw Festival because it called for more black actors than the Shaw could muster. I’m betting that Mr. Moodie wouldn’t be happy if white actors were cast to play black characters in his plays.

In The Little Foxes, playing this year at the Shaw Festival, Lillian Hellman’s key lines about the Hubbard family’s exploitation of black people wouldn’t make much sense if the actors portraying the Hubbards were themselves black. On stage, To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t make sense unless Atticus Finch looks like a white man and Tom Robinson looks like a black man. In fact, since interracial marriage was rare in England and North America before 1950, casting a husband and wife as persons of different races in Shaw-era plays would often be jarring and incongruous.

Mr. Moodie and Mr. Nestruck might argue that audiences today simply overlook an actor’s skin color. Maybe so. After all, every theater performance requires an audience to suspend disbelief to one degree or another.

But a director needs to be careful how far she imposes on audiences. As I commented in an earlier post, one of the problems with Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival this year was the director’s decision to make both sets of parents of Romeo and Juliet mixed-race couples. It was a seriously distracting element.

Theater is visual, and appearance has always mattered in casting. We audiences strain if an actor doesn’t look the part. We wouldn’t buy the Shaw Festival’s Michael Ball as Jack Tanner, because he’s too old. We wouldn’t buy Deborah Hay as Tanner, either; she’s too female. (But at the Stratford Festival next year, we’re going to buy Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell!) We don’t buy Eliza Doolittle unless she’s truly pretty enough to dazzle a prince at the Embassy Ball.

Ethnic appearance won’t be important for every Shaw-era play or character, but it matters often enough that a director usually has little discretion as to the racial composition of her cast. Sometimes, of course, the question of race can be neutralized by choosing all-black casts, as was done, apparently with success, for a recent Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring James Earl Jones, among other distinguished black actors. Could the Shaw Festival mount an all-black production of Private Lives or Waiting for Godot? It could happen, one supposes — they’re plays with small casts.

But in general, the Shaw Festival’s perennial need for a relatively large company of white actors will tend to preclude all-black casts. To Emsworth’s sorrow, for the late August Wilson, a fellow native of western Pennsylvania, is one of his favorite playwrights, that probably means that Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, plays comfortably within the Shaw Festival’s mandate, aren’t likely to be presented there. But you can’t have everything everywhere.

Couldn’t the Shaw Festival hire well-known actors of color for particular productions? That’s not its policy. The Shaw Festival casts from its own repertory company. So even if Morgan Freeman were willing to commit several months to acting in Niagara-on-the-Lake (don’t we wish!), it’s not the Shaw’s practice to bring in “stars” to play lead roles. Should the Shaw Festival redefine itself or change its policies to placate the diversity establishment? This member doesn’t think so.