Theatre: A devilish Big Daddy


How It’s New York: There’s a huge crowd outside the door of the theatre for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, because a Hollywood starlet (Scarlet Johansson) is in it, in a slip. So New York.
How It’s Irish: The great Irish actor Ciarán Hinds plays Big Daddy, and Tennessee Williams’ discursive way of telling a story has affinities with Irish storytelling.

This review was first published in Irish Examiner USA, Tuesday, Feb. 5.

When Ciarán Hinds Plays The Devil, The Devil Is A Gentleman

When Hinds plays Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ luminous 1955 play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he puts just a little bit of the devil in him.

He did, after all, play the devil in Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer a few years ago, in an unforgettable performance. My review for Celtic Cafe is here.

As Big Daddy, Hinds has the devil’s noblesse oblige.

If you’ve only seen the 1958 film of Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, you probably have the image of a blustery Burl Ives, who also originated the role on Broadway, in your head. So the way Hinds takes this role of a big talking, big living, big monied planter and refines him without taming him is a revelation.

Ciarán Hinds plays Big Daddy (Photocall)

You’d also picture Elizabeth Taylor in the role of Maggie the Cat. She’s played on Broadway today by Scarlett Johansson, who is gorgeous, but lacks Maggie’s subtlety.

Big Daddy Pollitt’s 65th birthday is what sets the play in motion. Big Daddy’s son Brick (Benjamin Walker) and his wife Maggie, along with his song Gooper (Michael Park) and his wife Mae (Emily Bergl), and a passel of their children, whom Maggie refers to as “no-neck monsters,” have gathered to celebrate and edge for money.

Big Daddy is dying, you see. He doesn’t know it for sure, and for most of the first two acts he falls for a genteel lie that the medical report revealed only a minor problem, but Brick, a former athlete who has become an alcoholic, drinking until he feels a “click,” lets the truth slip in the most powerful scene of the night, the showdown between him and his father over the past and the future.

 The future is in jeopardy because Brick can barely stand his wife. He certainly is not sleeping with her, which is driving her around the bend. He has lost his will to live, because of the death of his friend Skipper, with whom he played college football and a brief span of pro football.
Maybe Brick is a repressed homosexual. Or it might be that it was only Skipper who felt that way. Skipper killed himself, and Brick needs to blame someone. He’s blaming Maggie, but deep down he really blames himself.

You’ll look in vain to see this delineated in the movie, by the way; they stick much more to Maggie’s infidelity with Skipper as a motivation for Brick’s dive into the bottle.
While it was difficult even to get in the door, thanks to the appeal of Scarlett (the man next to me said “oh God” when she came out in a slip), this is on the whole a kind of so-so production of the play.

Christopher Oram’s set design, of an airy bedroom with doors outside, beautifully captures the mausoleum-like quality of the plantation. But little else feels authentically southern, including the accents. So Scarlett is a feisty and outspoken Maggie, which is justified by her being a poor belle, but it makes her digs unfunny, because they are not subtle. Yes, she’s frustrated, we get that. Being guests in a house where her sister-in-law eavesdrops on her, and that sister-in-law has a bunch of kids and another on the way, would be provoking. But if we don’t like Maggie, it’s hard to laugh with her.

Worse than that, there’s next to no chemistry between her and Brick. That makes some sense too if Brick really is a closeted homosexual, but what are we to make of her reminiscing about how great their sex lives were when they first married, before everything happened with Brick?
On the other hand, Big Daddy and Big Mama, played by Debra Monk, are terrific. I don’t know what Big Mama can have done to make Big Daddy so cruel to her, and to make her own son chortle when his dad makes fun of his mother, but Monk plays a woman who senses she is ridiculous, but wants everyone to get along. Her love for her difficult husband is so big it overlooks his mockery. Dying people often turn on those near them, but Big Daddy chooses to show his contempt when he thinks he’s going to live. 

Almost all of Act Two (it is an old-fashioned three act play; as long as Shakespeare) is a heart to heart between father and son. This is a rare Big Daddy: a man whose cruelty to his wife is matched by a love that is kind, forgiving and tolerant towards his son. It’s Big Daddy who pushes Brick to the uncomfortable truth. Brick drinks to protest “mendacity,” but it’s his own that is destroying him. Hinds plays Big Daddy as a man so firmly rooted to the truth he doesn’t waste any time with labels. This blustery self-made man is no snob, but a realist – at least where other people are concerned.

When Maggie observes with some pride that Big Daddy has a bit of a lech for her, it’s just a sign of Big Daddy’s healthy appetite for life.

Director Rob Ashford shows his best work in Act Two as Big Daddy actually closes in on Brick, who is limping from a drunken injury on the high school playing field the night before. Yet while Big Daddy seems a predator, he’s really only trying to pounce on the hurt that is devouring his son in front of his eyes.

Their scene together chills and warms at the same time.

Unfortunately, most of the rest of the play sits right at room temperature.

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.