Tony Award winner Scarlett Johansson returns to Broadway to heat up the stage this winter in a new revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams’ compelling drama of the Deep South. She takes on the role of “Maggie the Cat”, a woman determined to hold on to her alcoholic husband and help him inherit the family cotton plantation. “This is a pretty intense family drama,” says Rob Ashford, director of the new revival, which starts December 18 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. “We all try to live our lives with our own expectations and that of our families running side by side. And sometimes when those don’t align, I think it is quite difficult for a family to cope with that. I love that the play happens all on one night. It helps to ratchet up the tension and keeps the stakes high.”
The coveted estate in Williams’ family drama is owned by Big Daddy, an ailing patriarch who must decide which of his sons will inherit the valuable property: Gooper the eldest, a stolid lawyer with a noisy brood of children, or his favorite Brick, a one-time golden boy who has given up on life and has failed to produce any heirs, despite his marriage to the sexually attractive and ambitious Maggie. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1955 and is memorialized in the 1958 MGM movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. Ashford’s production comes fairly fast on the heels of the last Broadway revival, the 2008 production with Anika Noni Rose heading an all-African-American cast, which in turn was preceded five years earlier by a 2003 production starring Ashley Judd. “I think, if you love the play, you have a great cast and an idea for it, then you do the play,” notes the director. Ashford, who spends half his time working in London, says he is used to seeing classic plays getting produced on a more regular basis over there. “They don’t seem to have the same kind of rules, where you have to maybe wait 20 years before doing a play again. I think it probably goes back to Shakespeare for the British — the idea that you get to see so many different interpretations, many different performances. If it is a great play and a great playwright, you can’t see it enough.”
Ashford is best known on this side of Atlantic as a choreographer and director of musicals — he won a Tony for his choreography in Thoroughly Modern Millie and was nominated for both direction and choreography for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and most recently for his choreography for the current revival of Evita. In London, he directed Williams’ other well-known classic, A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Rachel Weisz, and most recently he directed Jude Law in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, which won the 2011 Olivier Award for Best Revival. His involvement with the current revival of Cat came about, he explains, because he happens to share an agent with the star Johansson. “I saw Scarlett in A View from the Bridge [the 2010 revival of the Arthur Miller drama for which she received a Tony] and I was blown away,” says Ashford. “I couldn’t believe that it was her first play on Broadway — she was so precise and that brilliant, really. I put that away at the back of my head thinking, I hope one day I get to work with such a great actress. And Cat has been on my wish list for a long time. It so happened that she was talking to my agent about doing Cat and he put the two of us together.” The admiration is mutual for Johansson, who says, “I am so thrilled to return to Broadway and feel incredibly fortunate to be doing so with Rob Ashford and such gifted actors.” The cast includes Benjamin Walker (last seen on Broadway in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) as Brick, Ciarán Hinds (who recently played the Clintonesque former President in the TV miniseries Political Animals) as Big Daddy and Tony winner and multiple nominee Debra Monk (Curtains, Company, Redwood Curtain) as Big Mama.
“I’m a Southern boy and a huge fan of Williams,” says Ashford, who grew up in a small town in West Virginia. “I understand why he set this play in the Mississippi Delta. It’s one of the richest and most fertile in the country. So it’s a play about fertility. It’s a play about the richness of the land, about birth, about regeneration — I think that is always good theater. You know, they call the Delta the “South’s South,” he adds. “I think that’s because it’s so fertile — almost pagan. The play needs to have the sexuality, the urgency and the energy of a brand new play, but our job is also to try and take our audience back to the time that this play was written, especially because it deals so much with the question of Brick and Skipper’s relationship.” Reflecting on the implications of homosexuality between Maggie’s husband and his deceased best friend (a theme downplayed in the movie version), Ashford says, “it’s challenging and important to remind everyone that in 1951 there was a certain view which caused a certain dilemma.”
“I haven’t tried to put a big concept on the play,” Ashford continues. “I just want to get to the heart of the play, the characters, and also the poetry. Tennessee has so much poetry in his work, which is what is so beautiful about his writing. I’d love to put some of that on the stage — the harshness of what happens to these people, the pain as well as the poetry. To me the biggest compliment from someone leaving the production would be, ‘I feel like I have never seen that play before.’”
By Gerard Raymond