In ”Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Maggie – the prowling young woman in heat created by Tennessee Williams back in 1955 in his Pulitzer Prize-winning lament for impacted homosexual love – is, famously, a Southern striver who grew up poor and clawed her way to comfort by marrying the defeated, alcoholic son of the area’s biggest plantation owner. Maggie means to secure her future by bearing an heir. But her husband, Brick, is even more famously sunk in guilt, despair, and liquored apathy over the death of his boyhood friend and real love, Skipper, and cold to his wife’s entreaties.
Some scratchfest: As modeled by Ashley Judd in the new Broadway production directed by British stage veteran Anthony Page, Maggie is more of a fashion lynx than an alley feline, while Jason Patric compacts Brick into cement. Attacking her inert husband in volleys of ornate ”Hot Tin” language, Judd delivers her torrential speeches with more guts and grace of posture than grasp of the character that Barbara Bel Geddes created for director Elia Kazan on Broadway and Elizabeth Taylor branded as her own opposite Paul Newman in Richard Brooks’ 1958 movie adaptation. And with every sally, Judd butts up against Patric’s own handsome opacity: She’s unsure, and he’s unreceptive.
The splendor of full-throttle Williams, though, in all his theatricality as he rages about the stink of ”mendacity,” is that he has made a drama that continues to bloom, decades after the era of homosexual shame in which it’s rooted. And the newest ”Cat” responds rewardingly to fresh interpretations of Brick’s parents, Big Daddy and Big Mama, by the wonderful Ned Beatty and marvelous character actress Margo Martindale (”The Human Stain”) in her Broadway debut.
A program note from Page explains that the text for this revival is the playwright’s third version, rewritten in 1974 at a time when the homosexual undercurrent no longer needed to remain quite so subterranean. And Beatty, keenly attuned to the change in attitudinal weather, transforms Big Daddy – a man who, believing he has just beaten a death sentence of cancer, spills over with boiling life force – into an unusually enlightened pater. The character is still a thundering presence. But, especially in the great second-act analytic session with Brick, a new side of Big Daddy appears, as if it had never before been given a chance to face the sun (and theater audiences): Light on his feet even as he stomps through his unhappy household, Beatty’s patriarch is a man all the more daunting in his truth-telling, mendacity-defying understanding of his son’s true nature. Beatty’s Big Daddy does nothing that Williams didn’t give him to do – yet under the actor’s command, he lives in a new way.
And matching Beatty revelation for revelation, Martindale accomplishes the remarkable feat of filling Big Mama’s contours so that, perhaps for the first time, the humiliated woman – a creation of Williams at his most trying – is a Barbara Bush-size personage to reckon with, not just a joke. To create a Mama who can hold her own next to the towering Daddy and musky Maggie is indeed a triumph. To produce a Cat where the old lion and lioness outrun their beautiful young is, at the very least, a novelty.