The play is set in a single bedroom on the Pollitt cotton plantation in Mississippi. Staying in the room are Brick (Walker), the second son of Big Daddy (Ciarán Hinds) and Big Mama (Debra Monk), and his wife Maggie. Maggie (Johansson) is a woman of hard-scrabble origins who has made good, except that her marriage to Brick is a fraud. There is no love.
Once a successful football player and sportscaster, Brick has become an alcoholic after the death of his close friend Skipper. Brick, it was rumored, was having a homosexual affair with him. Skipper revealed his true feelings for Brick and he rejects him. Skipper kills himself, leaving Brick guilt-ridden and anxious.
The family has assembled to celebrate Big Daddy’s 65th birthday. Unfortunately, it is also probably also his last. He has just been diagnosed with cancer. His family, each for their own selfish reasons, has kept the truth of his diagnosis from him and Big Mama.
Johansson owns the first act and proves herself worthy of the role. When I said she was hopped up, she really is as nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof. She doesn’t sit still, constantly flitting back and forth between the makeup table and the foot of the bed. While she sits smoking a cigarette she crosses one leg over the other and then almost immediately switches legs, all the while bitching about her brother and sister-in-law’s “no neck monster” children.
After meeting the “no neck monster” children, you understand why Maggie might be so nervous. Her nosey sister and brother-in-law, Mae and Gooper, are played to haughty perfection by Emily Bergl and Michael Park respectively. Hind’s Big Daddy is an imposing and bombastic man. He gives a powerful and memorable performance. As Big Mama, I initially doubted Monk’s chops. But when she begins to channel the power of Big Daddy, she proves she is indeed in charge of the roost and this role. She takes charge just as Big Daddy discovers he indeed has cancer.
Rob Ashford’s direction is serviceable though he frequently directs/allows his actors to address one-another while facing upstage. The upstage wall of the set is made entirely of soft-goods and as the actor’s face upstage to address other actors, their lines are absorbed by the yards of fabric. As to the performances themselves, he has elicited brilliant performances from this cast.
Christopher Oram’s scenic design beautifully replicates the airiness of a southern plantation with its high ceilings, open floor-to-ceiling windows and ceiling fans. Neil Austin’s lighting design beautifully enhances the mood of the play and Oram’s set. The music and sound design by Adam Cork, particularly at the end of each act, isloud, intrusive and oddly inappropriate with one piece sounding like it came from The Lion King.
In a disappointing season, this Cat on a Hot Tin Roof possesses an intensity and passion that hasn’t been matched. This wonderful ensemble inhabit the characters with a veracity and conviction worthy of Williams’s self-proclaimed “favorite work.”