Cat On a Hot Tin Roof / Tennessee Williams
One of the problems with doing things alone is that you’re the only one there to remember them. There seems to be something about sharing an experience that helps me cement the experience. Perhaps it’s the rehashing with someone afterwards. Perhaps their words help me remember, like all the “memories” of my childhood that I only know because of the stories my parents have told over the years.
Unfortunately, I tend to do things alone for the most part. Like last night. I went to a play because of one of the actors, Jim Beaver. I’ve been watching the Supernatural series. He played one of my favorite characters on the show and had a familiar face. It’s funny, you see someone in a bunch of different things, but don’t really pay attention. I love IMDB, so I was reading up on his experiences as an actor, all the places I’ve seen his face before, and writer.
A friend mentioned Mr. Beaver was on social media so I followed him. He’s been writing diary entries of his experiences rehearsing and performing Cat On a Hot Tin Roof with the Berkshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Normally that would be a little further than I’d go for a show. But not that much further. I drove seven hours to see Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, five hours to see Elvis Costello (that time also alone). But, turns out friends were getting married and a bunch of us from college were getting together in central NY to see them while they were in town. Plotter that I am, I decided I could go up for the weekend, see my friends, then swing over the Massachusetts line and catch a show before driving home to Pennsylvania.
It’s odd, the connection you feel from something online. Like seeing the friends’ children that I’d never met but I knew through all the pictures they’d shared over the years. Or the fiancee that’s already one of “us”, we just had to meet her. Mr. Beaver’s writings made me curious to see the endeavor for myself. I’m fascinated with what’s behind what we see. Aren’t we all? So, through his sharing of his struggles and successes, I was tempted to make a long weekend of it.
Stockbridge is an interesting town. Judging by the schools I saw, some folks have money in that neck of the woods. And probably some strict building regulations, I’d guess, based on the sedate signage in town (good luck locating the Mobile station). They have the look of a place that blooms in the summer. That has an idea of itself. I was reminded of Chautauqua or Saratoga Springs.
The theatre was an old white building with high steps and swinging screen doors on the small side porch that led to the lobby and box office. I entered by the back door and felt like I was somewhere I shouldn’t have been, though it was full of touristic brochures. I had to ask an older gentleman with an official looking lanyard for directions around through the small hallway and concession area to the lobby. I’ve seen some older theaters that one might call majestic. This was not such a place. It was quite plain, faded carpets, older chairs with broken-in cushions in the seats — Sitting upright was uncomfortable since there seemed to be a well in my chair bottom that required a bit of a slouch to fit into. Otherwise, it felt like sitting on a bucket rim. I’d brought a fleece with me as I was suspecting the warm evening might turn cool by the end of the play, and worried that I’d be too hot in the theatre, expecting it to be like some old churches of my childhood where you needed a paper fan to make it through the service. Thankfully, that was not the case. It was actually chilly with air-conditioning so that I was under my fleece half-way through the second act.
The stage was set when we entered, no curtain, and we were looking at a bedroom, the space defined by four columns, otherwise wide open. I read the play this evening and was struck with the stage directions there describing it “as if it were a set for a ballet.” While this set did not hold exactly to the description in the play, there was certainly that feeling. I could see this as a play in the round, though it was not. The three walls of the stage, set back far from the bedroom setting, showed a sky which varied as the evening progressed and allowed action behind and “outside” the main scene.
As the play began, I was struck by the difference between live theatre and a movie. There’s a polish in movies that seems lacking in a play. I thought it was just because most of the plays I’ve ever seen were simple productions, high school or college performances. But here, as a professional group, people I’ve seen in movies or television, there was still this lack of gloss. Less real in its reality. Odd.
Also lacking was the immersion that a movie screen provides. You have no choice where to look when you watch a movie. Or even in sports. The difference between watching hockey on tv versus sitting in the arena, where you have to decide what’s important and who to watch and you miss things. I found myself watching the person speaking, but missing actions by other players, drawn to my attention, for example — “Why are you looking at me like that?” — when I’d not seen the way Brick was looking at Maggie. I found that frustrating.
I had no idea what the story was in the play beyond a brief description. Until tonight, I’d not read the play. I really dislike reading plays. I think literature teaching in schools does a very real disservice to students by having them read plays. They’re dead things like that. That’s not how they’re intended to be experienced. By all means, read afterwards, but what a horrid introduction! That’s like showing up to a dinner party and, instead of food, there are recipe cards at each place setting and the host tells you to enjoy your meal.
The audience was also an interesting addition. Mr. Beaver wrote about the difference in performing in front of the audience versus run-throughs without, how it changes the way the actors perform, their timing to allow for laughter, the energy. As someone watching, however, I had an almost negative reaction. They laughed at the wrong things. Oh, certainly there were funny aspects in the play. I laughed out loud when the doctor told Big Momma to keep her chin up and Gooper said, “She’ll keep both her chins up!” But there were other places where people laughed and it wasn’t a funny situation at all. It was an awful or hurtful thing said. There are so many of those throughout the play. It’s not a pleasant play. It’s most definitely not a comedy. And yet people laughed.
Perhaps I’m touchy. Perhaps I saw too much of my grandfather in the phrasing of the angry words of Big Daddy. Mr. Williams got the words down just right and Mr. Beaver did an excellent job of delivering them. It made me wonder if they’d known men like that, who could rage in a moment with little provocation, or too many years of provocation sparked to blaze by an innocuous comment. So, perhaps I associated too closely and that’s why the audience reaction felt off to me, inappropriate. Or, maybe people just don’t have another way to react.
I enjoyed reading the play this evening, oddly enough, because I could hear the performers, picture the way they played the scenes. I went to the words because there were a few times that I couldn’t understand what had been said or I wanted to recall exactly what had been said. In particular, I couldn’t remember what had lead Big Daddy to say, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true,” earlier in the play when Brick used the same line at the end. Seems to have been the same, a pronouncement of love by his wife. Also, Mr. Beaver had written about the difficulty he had with the long speeches with repetitive phrasing that seemed made to trip up an actor. There had actually been points with Maggie that it sounded like she’d lost a line and gone back, but it was actually written that way! In reading, you see why it would give someone trouble.
The play itself was actually changed for the performance. Portions were cut, Mr. Beaver said, to account for the difference in casting. There was only one child. At one point in the play, they all come in and sing a song for Big Daddy. That was gone entirely. There were no servants included, either. A few references were glossed over, as well. If they were doing that, I wondered what point there was for Preacher to be in the play. Yes, I’m questioning Tennessee Williams. If I’d been in his workshop group, I’d have suggested they cut him. It doesn’t seem to serve any purpose other than a brief foil for Big Daddy and a few comedic elements here and there. There was also a line about a flood that I don’t recall from the performance. But I can’t tell whether it was cut with these changes or if it fell by the wayside as part of the tricky monologue.
The version of the play I read also had an alternate ending and it looks like they mashed the two together. The “original” version had no Big Daddy in the third act at all. The second ending had him there, and this was, for the most part, how they played it last night, though they went back to the other ending for the very last part of it, which I liked more than how it ended in the second version, allowing Brick’s repetition of his father’s earlier line.
The thing that stood out to me in the second version, though, and in the performance, was that Brick actually came to Maggie’s defense. It surprised me and seemed to go against his apparent disinterest in everything and disgust, in particular, of Maggie. But when Gooper and Mae attack Maggie over her lie, he intercedes, physically placing himself in support of her. It was incongruous and yet hopeful that they could possibly reconcile. Though, not too hopeful. You still end up with that line.
There’s a lot of things to think about in the play — the second act probably the fullest of philosophy — and this highlights the problem of experiencing things alone. No one to talk to about all the thoughts I have. The long drive home would have been a perfect chance to knock around some thoughts, but instead it’s come to this and it’s too much to write.