Tennessee Williams' "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof" is a long night's journey into day. It begins surveying a clouded landscape of pain and desolation but ends, surprisingly, with glints of sunlight.
The play, which has been given an intelligent if uninvolving revival, is one of Williams' most powerful. When it opened, in 1955, it drew some of its strength from its explosive undercurrents of sexuality in a period of intense sexual repression. Brick's potential homosexuality and Maggie's unfulfilled sexual longings must have been extraordinarily disturbing to an audience that brought its own libidinal confusions into the darkened theater.
Now that the play's sexual content seems less inflammatory than it once did, Williams' more pressing concerns are clearer. His dark vision is expressed most potently in Brick's line: "Mendacity is a system that we live in. Liquor is one way out an' death's the other...."
By the end of the play, however, Brick has come to a subtler understanding of the shadings of mendacity. Maggie's lie that she is pregnant - impossible since they have not slept together for a long time - holds in it a possibility of hope. Her lie is a complex, ironic invitation to Brick to affirm life, which, warily, he accepts.
Brick's wrenching journey from negation to affirmation is limned with some of Williams' most haunting poetry. The playwright's depiction of Big Daddy's household, greedily awaiting his death, offers some of his most sardonic humor.
It seems odd that three of the four major Broadway revivals of Williams since his death have been directed by Englishmen. In every case they seem unable to deal with Williams at full strength. In these productions, the play's emotions simmer. They're supposed to come to a boil.
Howard Davies is best known to American audiences for his elegant production of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" three seasons ago. Understatement was essential to the depiction of French aristocrats, who never let emotions get in the way of their designs.
It works less well for Americans. We're not quite so cunning. We're painfully open about our emotional lives, and overstatement doesn't bother us a bit.
The understated approach is most harmful in the way Davies has Charles Durning play Big Daddy. The name has a mocking ring to it, as if he were either a mobster or a cartoon character. For Williams, he was both. He symbolized the ruthlessness and unmasked aggression that make America a cruel, painful place. But at the same time he has gotten pathetically little from his wealth and power. He's both larger than life and more trivial.
For Durning, he's a man of bluster. When he softens toward Brick in the second act, it doesn't really come as a surprise, because he hasn't seemed all that tyrannical to begin with. At one point, he raises his hand to strike Big Mama. It seems the gesture of a man trying to assert his strength, not someone who is used to exercising it.
The strongest character on stage is Kathleen Turner as Maggie. But she's a little too tough. We never sense any vulnerability or pain. She's sexy, but it's a hard, uninviting sexiness. She has the sassiness of a white trash girl who's moved up in the world, but she does nothing to invite our sympathy. When she announces she's pregnant, it seems a brazen gesture, an effort to alter Big Daddy's will in Brick's favor, not a statement that she has triumphed over her despair and will help Brick do the same.
As for Brick, Daniel Hugh Kelly has a neutral, glazed quality much of the time. The justification for his stoniness is that he's drunk and getting drunker. But the alcoholism should be a veneer through which we see the underlying agony. Here it's fairly impenetrable. He does have moving moments in his confrontation with Big Daddy. This long, beautiful scene brings the best work from both Kelly and Durning.
Polly Holliday begins her Big Mama as caricature but ends as a convincingly distressed woman.
There is extremely strong work by Debra Jo Rupp and Kevin O'Rourke as the most desperate competitors for Big Daddy's largesse. The well-cast children, whom Maggie calls "no-necked monsters," play their parts with gleeful stridency.
Patricia Zipprodt has costumed Turner sensuously, the others with raffish charm and the children with apt grotesqueness. William Dudley's set conveys a poetry the cast too seldom does.
We find ourselves seeing the play clearly but dispassionately. Detachment was not what Williams had in mind.
The cat is back doing her balancing act on Tennessee Williams' hot tin roof again - a new Maggie is in town, fighting for her rights, her man and her sanity, and Broadway is a happier and distinctly warmer place for her presence.
Kathleen Turner has played Broadway before - but not really so as anyone would have noticed. Her triumphant appearance last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, as Maggie the Cat in Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," was to all extent a "star" debut - a megastar debut perhaps, if you are into relative candlepower - and accepted as such.
It is one thing to sail onto Broadway in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," but first you have to decide which "Cat" you intend to sail in on. Williams left at least three versions, and the latest director, the Englishman Howard Davies, has made a shrewd choice. The celebrated director Elia Kazan had what many now think was an almost perverse skill in exploiting Williams' talent at the expense of his genius.
He made the products highly saleable for their time - and rightly won praise for his own steamy stagings, which seemed (laughably now) to introduce a new era of sexual frankness into the theater - Williams as part drama and part Kazan peepshow. It was a neat trick - with Williams' own insecure but total compliance - and helped make them both rich.
When the play was published, Williams saw to it that both last acts were included, and, indeed, when it had its first London production, staged by Peter Hall in 1958 with Kim Stanley as Maggie, it was the original Williams version that was taken. In 1974 - on the play's last Broadway revival, by Michael Kahn - Williams wrote a compromise ending, which, as in the Kazan, had Big Daddy appearing in the last act. This also authorized the use of genuine four-letter expletives in place of the euphemisms of the original.
Two years ago, for Britain's National Theater, the British director Howard Davies, best known on Broadway for his version of Christopher Hampton's "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," staged a thrilling production of this American classic - using the original text but adopting the storm back ground Kazan had put in, and adding a stunningly naturalistic setting by William Dudley, totally removed from the original showbiz stylization of Jo Mielziner.
For this production, Davies got together a wonderful cast including Lindsay Duncan (from "Liaisons"), the late Ian Charleson as Brick, Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Big Mama and, best of all, Eric Porter, who was once Soames Forsythe in that memorable TV series, "The Forsythe Saga," as Big Daddy. It proved a once-in-a-lifetime cast, but it would have been difficult, even tactless, to have brought it to New York, and the recasting of Kathleen Turner as Maggie is doubtless one which Kazan would have heartily endorsed - and probably Williams also.
The British cast gave Davies' concept a marvelous sense of Greek tragedy - these people were as haunted as the House of Atreus, and the past, with all its mendacities, hung dankly in the thunderous heat.
Most of this tragic feel - remember Williams even respected those classic Three Unities - is still maintained in the new Broadway production. What Davies has been at pains to eschew is the slightly naughty air of R-rated sleaze that still clings to some of Williams like a forgotten, stale, cheap perfume.
In the theater of its time, where a woman appearing in a bra or a slip was regarded as daring, even risque - a theater where nudity was restricted to burlesque (and then with care) - it is no wonder that Williams' lingerie-draping heroines were regarded, first and last, as racy.
There is nothing remotely racy - a proper touch of sensuality, yes - in Davies' "Cat." The costumes are not by Fredericks of Hollywood.
In this Broadway version, both Turner and Charles Durning are far more attractive and more ironically funny than their National Theater predecessors - and this works very well. The rakish grin and impish chuckle is never far away in Williams, and if Davies' original production had a fault it was perhaps in a slight suggestion of solemnity.
Turner, as Maggie - despite a throaty, molasses voice - sensibly avoids the naive, Southern sexpot approach, and instead concentrates on a portrait of a resourceful woman, no longer quite young, fearful of her future ("You can be young without money, but not old without it"), facing clearsightedly Brick's presumed latent homosexuality, and trying to make her bid for love, family, and a fair cut out of dying father-in-law Big Daddy's fortune.
It is a fine performance, without a great deal of nuance - there is a burnt-out, ash-hot hunger to Maggie that I miss here - but very effective in its overall command of the play. Durning's Big Daddy is a touch too good ol' boy Southern comfortable conventional - it's a boldly executed performance worth a much lesser play.
Polly Holliday has a much better time with Big Mama - it is, I imagine, an essential part of Davies' familial view of the play, justified by Brick's last line repeating a phrase of his father's, that potentially Brick and Maggie could develop into Big Daddy and Big Mama - and Holliday does indeed have much of the flirtatiousness, resourcefulness and spunk of a nevertheless worn-down Maggie.
Of all of Tennessee's maimed stud heroes, Brick is perhaps the most difficult - he spends the whole play, his foot in a cast, gazing into a gentlemanly liquor-soaked space, waiting for a "click" to release him from the passing misery of living. Charleson played him like a young Achilles who had gotten lost on the way to the battle, but Daniel Hugh Kelly is made of duller stuff. He is handsome in the way of a wooden Indian, shows anger in short bursts, but never limns in the complexity of a man who betrayed the thing he loved and possibly his own sexuality.
The monster children, and their monster parents, Brick's elder brother, Gooper (Kevin O'Rourke), and his wife (Debra Jo Rupp) are all neatly and wholeheartedly caricatured.
The important thing as you leave this landmark staging of one of America's greatest plays is the sheer depth of texture and character it has revealed.
Turner, mocking yet fearful, sassily funny yet itchy with desires that go beyond sex, and the all but innocent victim of a family in perpetual and hateful crisis, is giving a performance to cherish, in a play to revalue.
In America we all pay lip service to Williams - and for that matter Arthur Miller - but it seems to be in Britain that they cut through past traditions and preconceptions, and treat both Williams and Miller as living classics.
There is surely a lesson for us here.
It takes nothing away from Kathleen Turner's radiant Maggie in ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'' to say that Broadway's gripping new production of Tennessee Williams's 1955 play will be most remembered for Charles Durning's Big Daddy. The actor's portrayal of a 65-year-old Mississippi plantation owner in festering extremis is an indelible hybrid of red-neck cutup and aristocratic tragedian, of grasping capitalist and loving patriarch.
Just try to get the image of Mr. Durning - a dying volcano in final, sputtering eruption under a Delta moon - out of your mind. I can't. ''Cat'' is a curiously constructed work in which the central but sullen character of Brick, the all-American jock turned booze hound, clings to the action's periphery while Act I belongs to his wife, Maggie, Act II to his Big Daddy and the anti-climactic Act III (of which the author left several variants) to no one. Such is Mr. Durning's force in the second act at the O'Neill that he obliterates all that comes after, despite the emergence of Polly Holliday's poignant Big Mama in the final stretch.
Mr. Durning's Act II tour de force begins with low comedy: the portly, silver-haired actor, dressed in a sagging white suit and wielding a vaudeville comedian's stogie, angrily dismisses his despised, nattering wife and his bratty grandchildren, those cap-gun-toting ''no-neck monsters'' who would attempt to lure him into a saccharine birthday party. From that hilarious display of W. C. Fields dyspepsia, it is quite a leap to the act's conclusion. By then, Mr. Durning is white with fear, clutching the back of a chair for support, for he has just learned what the audience has long known: Big Daddy is being eaten away by cancer that ''has gone past the knife.''
In between comes a father-son confrontation that is not only the crux of Mr. Durning's performance but also the troubling heart of a play that is essential, if not first-rank, Williams. Big Daddy loves Brick (Daniel Hugh Kelly) and would like to favor him when dividing his estate of $10 million and ''28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile.'' But there are mysteries to be solved before the writing of the will. Why are Brick and Maggie childless? Why is Brick, once a football hero and later a television sports announcer, now, at 27, intent on throwing away his life as if it were ''something disgusting you picked up on the street''? How did Brick break his ankle in the wee hours of the night before?
Mr. Durning will have his answers, even if he has to knock Brick off his crutch to get them. But his Big Daddy, while tough as a billy goat, is not a cartoon tyrant. He wants to talk to his son, not to badger him. He offers Brick understanding and tolerance in exchange for the truth, even if that truth might be Brick's closeted homosexual passion for his best friend and football buddy, Skipper, now dead of drink. All Big Daddy wants is freedom from the lies and hypocrisy of life that have so long disgusted him. Yet Brick, while sharing that disgust, won't surrender his illusions without a fight.
''Mendacity is the system we live in,'' the son announces. ''Liquor is one way out and death's the other.'' When the truth finally does emerge - and for both men it is more devastating than any sexual revelation - liquor and death do remain the only exits. Life without the crutch of pipe dreams or anesthesia is too much to take. As the lights dim on Act II, Mr. Kelly is isolated in a stupor and Mr. Durning, his jaw distorted by revulsion and rage, is howling like Lear on the heath. Advancing relentlessly into the bowels of his mansion, the old man bellows an epic incantation of ''Lying! Dying! Liars!'' into the tall shadows of the Southern Gothic night.
Along with the high drama and fine acting - Mr. Kelly's pickled Adonis included - what makes the scene so moving is Williams's raw sensitivity to what he called (in his next play, ''Orpheus Descending'') man's eternal sentence to solitary confinement. In ''Cat,'' Maggie probably does love Brick, Big Mama probably does love Big Daddy, and Brick loves Skipper and Big Daddy as surely as they have loved him. Yet the lies separating those who would love are not easily vanquished. In this web of familial, fraternal and marital relationships, Williams finds only psychic ruin, as terminal as Big Daddy's cancer and as inexorable as the greed that is devouring the romantic Old South.
In his revival, Howard Davies, the English director last represented in New York by ''Les Liaisons Dangereuses,'' keeps his eye on that bigger picture: Williams's compassion for all his trapped characters and his desire to make his play ''not the solution of one man's psychological problem'' but a ''snare for the truth of human experience.'' With the exception of Mae (Debra Jo Rupp), Brick's conniving sister-in-law, everyone on stage is human. The playwright doesn't blame people for what existence does to them. He has empathy for the defeated and admiration for those like Maggie who continue the fight for life and cling to the hot tin roof ''even after the dream of life is all over.''
From her salt-cured accent to her unabashed (and entirely warranted) delight in her own body heat, Miss Turner is an accomplished Maggie, mesmerizing to watch, comfortable on stage and robustly good-humored. Merely to see this actress put on her nylons, a ritual of exquisitely prolonged complexity, is a textbook lesson in what makes a star. Miss Turner is so good as far as she goes that one wishes she'd expose her emotions a shade more - without compromising her admirable avoidance of a campy star turn. Her Maggie is almost too stubbornly a survivor of marital wars; she lacks the vulnerability of a woman ''eaten up with longing'' for the man who shuns her bed.
Though somewhat more can be made of Brick - and was by Ian Charleson, in Mr. Davies's previous staging of ''Cat'' in London - Mr. Kelly captures the detachment of defeat, and later the rage, of a man who buried hope in his best friend's grave. When Brick is finally provoked to stand up for the ''one great good true thing'' in his life, the actor gives an impassioned hint of the noble figure who inspired worship from all who knew him. But it's a major flaw of ''Cat'' that this character is underwritten. Williams defines the physique of his golden boy - and Mr. Kelly fleshes that out, too - but leaves the soul opaque.
Since Brick doesn't pull his weight in any of the playwright's third acts for ''Cat,'' it hardly matters which one is used. Mr. Davies reverts to the unsentimental original draft, which never made it to the stage in Elia Kazan's initial Broadway production. Miss Holliday's Big Mama, an unstrung Amanda Wingfield brought to her own grief by others' mendacity, is a rending figure within the thunderstorm of the denouement. Along with the supporting cast, the designers' vision of a decaying South - from the fading veranda to the intrusion of the latest American innoculation against intimacy, a 1950's console television - thickens the rancid mood of a household where, in Big Mama's words, ''such a black thing has come . . . without invitation.''
But even in Act III, even offstage, Mr. Durning continues to dominate, and, in a way, he gets the big scene with the star that the script denies him. As Maggie tenaciously clings to her tin roof, Big Daddy can be heard from somewhere deep within, his terrifying screams of pain rattling that roof, threatening even at death's doorstep to blow the lid off life's cruel, incarcerating house of lies.