If you think you know Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" from the 1958 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, think again.
The playwright had nothing to do with the screenplay based on his play, which had opened on Broadway three years earlier. The movie highlighted father-son reconciliation as a central theme, and muted Brick's gay heartbreak, offering scant explanation of why he would reject the come-ons of a wife played with sizzle by Elizabeth Taylor.
"It made little sense dramaturgically," said Carla Steen, who is the dramaturg for the Guthrie Theater's production of "Cat" that opens today. "But there's confusion in general around this play, which many people think they have seen but actually haven't."
Director Lisa Peterson has opted to use Williams' last revision of his own Pulitzer-winning play. In that version, published in 1974, the playwright restored cuts suggested by director Elia Kazan for the Broadway production, with issues of greed, lying and repressed homosexuality more sharply drawn.
The playwright himself often was contradictory about his own work.
"In his letters and notes, Williams always regretted the compromises he made for the '55 production," said Steen. "But in some of the letters, he said that he was happy with the changes. In others, he said he was bullied into them."
Director Peterson said that Williams' 1974 revisions made the drama richer and more contemporary.
"It's a tough family play, not a warm and fuzzy one," said Peterson, whose Guthrie credits include a luminous "Oedipus" in 2005 and an impeccable "Major Barbara" two years later. "These people are desperate and hard on each other. The takeaway from their struggles is that in the end, life wins."
Family dynamics and drama
Said to be Williams' favorite play, "Cat" takes place in one night at the plantation estate of Big Daddy Pollitt, the largest cotton mogul in the Mississippi Delta. As his family gathers, ostensibly to celebrate his 65th birthday -- the party is really a living wake, as he is dying of cancer but does not know it -- his offspring's problems and desires torque the play into a "Dynasty" forerunner.
Competing sons Brick and Gooper are in line to get big inheritances. But Brick doesn't seem all that interested in fighting for his share of the legacy, even as his wife, Maggie the Cat, eggs him on. The two are in a sexless marriage; Brick has turned to alcohol as he grieves the recent suicide of his friend Skipper.
At the Guthrie, the sullen and introspective Brick is played by Twin Cities actor Peter Christian Hansen, who portrayed the same character in a small, well received production of "Cat" by Torch Theater in 2006.
The cast includes two imports -- Tony nominee Melissa Hart, who plays Big Mama, and Emily Swallow as Maggie the Cat. A Jacksonville, Fla., native, Swallow studied Arabic at the University of Virginia in preparation for what she thought would be a career in diplomacy. She had a change of heart during her senior year. She applied to and was accepted into graduate school at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts using a monologue from a Williams play.
Maggie "comes from a poor background and doesn't want to go back there," Swallow said. "She loves Brick and understands where he's coming from, but she wants to keep what she has got."
The actor has played a steely detective on TV in "Ringer" and a detective's wife in "Southland." She made her Broadway debut in the short-lived musical "High Fidelity" a few years ago. In 2008, she was the striking fairy queen Titania in the Guthrie's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
The "Cat" cast includes David Anthony Brinkley of "Scottsboro Boys" as Big Daddy; he came directly from playing Big Mama in "Hairspray" at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. Chris Carlson ("God of Carnage") plays Gooper.
For Swallow, the role is close to her heart. While she has not acted in a Williams play before, she auditioned for the same part "five or six years ago." She did not get it.
"And a good thing, because I don't think I would've been ready for it," she said.
Swallow says that both her education and her experiences have prepared her for Maggie the Cat.
"She's a fierce, intelligent, determined character," Swallow said. "And she has all these beautiful lines."
The drama is surprising in the precision of its language and the surreal approach to complex social and family issues, said director Peterson, who only came to Williams five years ago when she directed "The Glass Menagerie" at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.
"I'd always been drawn to Shaw and Shakespeare and Caryl Churchill -- playwrights using language as argument," said Peterson. " I always thought that Williams was too emotionally centered for me. I was scared of him. Now I realize he's a language writer, a poet of the corners of our soul."
Williams' plays frequently are suffused with a theme of being trapped, like a bird in a cage trying to escape. "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Summer and Smoke," just to name two, both center on characters trying to escape something that would keep them in place.
The playwright's most successful plays, written in the 1940s and '50s, also carry the ethos of America at the time he wrote them. The racial subconscious of the nation is made vivid in "Cat," which is, after all, set on a cotton plantation, a crop that is synonymous with toiling slaves.
"Big Daddy, who we love and who his staff admires, uses the n-word," said Peterson. "He says coon and A-rab. He's a good old-fashioned racist. It's raw, but that's how people spoke at the time."