Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of the most famous plays by Tennessee Williams, and this October, you can see it by two different award-winning New Hampshire companies: The Seacoast Repertory Theatre and the Milford Area Players.
The play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1955, is set in the plantation home of Mississippi cotton tycoon Big Daddy Pollitt. The action centers around a single dinner meal in which the entire family knows something Big Daddy does not: that he’s dying of cancer. As the drama unfolds, it’s clear he must decide which son his fortune will go to: Gooper and his wife Mae, or Brick and his wife Maggie. Only Brick’s the one who doesn’t seem to care — his football buddy Skipper just committed suicide, and he’s been soothing the pain with alcohol.
The Hippo talked with members from each company to get the lowdown.
Milford Area Players
Director Mike Wood pitched the production about a year ago because of its strong characters and story. He’d performed in the play in college and had wanted a stab at directing ever since.
“I thought it was a play that would attract strong actors. Tennessee Williams sells himself as a playwright for actors. … Elizabeth Taylor played Maggie, and Brick was played by Paul Newman in the movie,” Wood said via phone last week. “It’s also a little bit timely; one of the minor characters, who is mentioned but not seen, is a gay pro sports athlete who ends up killing himself offstage.”
Woods was right; auditions presented a statewide turnout.
Caity Glover, who plays Maggie, has been making the drive from Manchester to Milford three to four nights a week. Normally a musical theater girl, Glover fell in love with the character while reading the play in high school and had little difficulty deciding that, this fall, she’d rather focus more on character work than song and dance.
“She’s an iconic role for women,” Glover said. “She has some great monologues. … When people think of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, they immediately think of Maggie.”
She’s been tackling lines by listening to a self-made phone recording while she drives. The part requires more lines than she’s ever had to learn, but it helps, she said, that Williams wrote the lines so eloquently. She, along with Katie Collins, who plays Big Mama, has been practicing her Southern drawl since the first table read.
“It’s easier to memorize [Williams’] lines, because they’re stories, but they’re almost like songs,” Glover said.
Playing Big Daddy is Glen Grimard, who wanted to be part of this production for the iconic role. It’s hard for him to find parts that suit him, especially in New Hampshire. And he agrees with Wood — the tale is timely. Plus, who doesn’t relate to a slightly dysfunctional family?
“There are a lot of things in my own everyday life that are similar to this character’s. We all fantasize or play tricks with our mind about our health, and what it really means. … I see this happening all the time,” Grimard said. “And the discussion he has with his son dealing with latent homosexual feelings is incredibly relevant in today’s day and age. And this was in the ‘50s. I can’t imagine what that discussion was like.”
Costumes will be traditional, sets minimal, which Wood hopes will put attention on actors.
“They’re complicated characters, and there are lots of monologues,” Wood said. “You make discoveries about the characters every day. Every night of rehearsal, we’ll do a scene, and then we’ll stop and talk about, why? Why is he saying this? What’s going on here?”
Seacoast Repertory Theatre
This is the first time The Rep has ever put on a Tennessee Williams show, and the first time since 2013 it’s produced a non-musical drama. Company and board members decided it was time to switch things up a bit this fall. After all, it’s part of their mission, even in this re-building year. They don’t want to get typecast as the theater that only does musicals, Brian Kelly, Rep marketing director, said via phone.
Company members called on the community, and last winter, audiences voted via a ballot with 10 possibilities — other choices included Of Mice and Men, Romeo & Juliet, Tuesdays With Morrie and Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor.
Directing is Meredith Freeman-Caple, who directed Williams’ other famous work, A Streetcar Named Desire, at the Players’ Ring down the street. Anticipation has been intense.
Freeman-Caple, said she’s been to shows at the Rep recently where Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was announced as the people’s choice production in the curtain speech.
“People go, ‘Ooh!’ … It’s just iconic,” she said.
Which is why she put her name in as a potential director immediately.
“[Williams’] characters are so human and so flawed. His words read to me like music,” she said.
Freeman-Caple is the one who recruited David Roby, whom she went to school with at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in the ‘90s. He played Brick in a school production and went on to become a professional Tennessee Williams expert. When she reached out with the idea of him presenting a lecture on the author — he’d since written a one-man show about Williams — he offered one better.
“He said to me, ‘What if I auditioned?’ It was just meant to be,” Freeman-Caple said.
Not mature enough to fully understand the 30-something alcoholic while a student. Roby wanted to try the role again.
“He brings in more life perspective now,” she said. “It’s a much more layered performance.”
Sets are antique and intricate, as are costumes.
While he’s here, Roby will perform the one-man show, sometimes there’s God so quickly, a 90-minute one-man production in which he plays 19 characters, all of whom he stumbled upon during interviews he conducted with people who knew Williams as the Tennessee Williams Playwright-in-Residence at the University of the South.
“[Including this show] kind of spoke to our mission,” Kelly said. “Historically, we haven’t done a lot of original work — we haven’t taken a lot of risks — and we’re looking to change that. Whether or not the community has an appetite for this type of show, we don’t know, but we have to give it a try.”