There are certain classic American plays that are revived on Broadway every decade or so, to let a new generation of actors and audiences discover them. Tennessee Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, running through March 30, is one of those iconic plays.
The last time Scarlett Johansson played on Broadway — which was also her first time — she won a Tony Award for her role as the young niece, Catherine, who unwittingly sets a tragedy in motion in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. The 28-year-old star, who’s fresh off last summer’s blockbuster movie The Avengers, wanted to return to the stage, and she read through a lot of plays. Then she found Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
“When I read it, I was just terrified of it,” Johansson says. “And I think that’s why I chose to do it. I didn’t know how to do it, but I knew I could do it. So that interested me.”
Johansson is stepping into a role — and a silky slip — that many actresses have made famous: Barbara Bel Geddes in the original production, Elizabeth Taylor in the film, Kathleen Turner and Elizabeth Ashley, among others, in Broadway revivals. But Johansson sees Maggie the Cat a little differently.
“She’s not a slinky sort of sex kitten,” Johansson says. “She’s earthy and she’s ugly at times, and you know, she is the ugly truth at times, for better or worse. And that’s how I see her in my mind.”
The play’s director, Rob Ashford, who’s well-known in New York for his work in musicals, has also directed revivals of classic American plays in London. He gathered a cast that includes rising star Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) as the alcoholic leading man Brick, and Irish actor Ciaran Hinds as blustering patriarch Big Daddy. Ashford says he wanted to direct this drama of family secrets and dysfunction with new eyes.
“You know, when we started rehearsal, one of the first things I said to them was, ‘If I could take these characters off these pedestals where they’ve been placed and just kind of put them back in the play, let’s make that our goal,’ ” Ashford says. “Not like someone ‘giving’ their Big Daddy or someone ‘giving’ their Maggie or someone ‘giving’ their Brick, but just these characters in a play.”
Walker says Ashford’s fresh perspective helped him tackle the role of Brick, a despairing ex-jock who’s lost his best friend, Skipper.
“A lot of people [think], you know, ‘Oh, it’s the play where the guy doesn’t know he’s gay!’ ” Walker says. “And it’s just more complicated than that; sexuality is much more complicated than that. What we learn about these people is much more complicated than that. I think what Rob has done is to embrace those complexities that are already in the play — I think that’ll surprise people.”
The unhappy, childless marriage between Brick and Maggie is brought into focus in the play by a 65th-birthday celebration for Brick’s cantankerous father, Big Daddy. Big Daddy owns a huge cotton plantation and is dying of cancer — though the other characters keep that fact hidden from him. One of Tennessee Williams’ biggest themes in this play is “mendacity.”
“All the way through, they talk about lying and liars, and they’re spoken of with such disgust and disdain, and yet we all live our lives by lies,” says Hinds. “Small lies, white lies, either for our own nefarious reasons or to prevent people from getting hurt by the truth.
“And that’s what seems to me the big heart of this play — who can face up to the lies and liars? The character that I play, Big Daddy, is the one who is the first one to stand up and say, ‘All my life I’ve been hampered and held back by liars.’ … But when it comes to facing his own truth, which is delivered to him very simply and very devastatingly by his son, he’s got nothing more to say.”
Ashford says all the painful truths are wrapped in uncommonly beautiful language.
“There’s so much poetry with the pain, do you know what I mean?” Ashford says. “It’s all kind of, ‘If life is gonna be brutal, then let’s have a little beauty with the brutality.’ “