Embellishing the Tennessee Williams classic “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” sounds like risky business. But director Elizabeth Falk says, “It’s all there in the play.”
Her production runs through Sept. 22 at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, before moving to the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival for four performances Sept. 27-29. And it opens with a wordless prologue of her creation, starring two characters often mentioned in the text but never before seen: the original owners of the plantation, now inhabited by familiar characters Big Daddy and Big Mama, Maggie and Brick.
The play revolves around Big Daddy’s cancer diagnosis and the family fortune. But his son, Brick, is also ailing, after the suicide of his friend Skipper. Brick hasn’t made love to his wife, Maggie, in a long time, and she suspects there was more than friendship between Skipper and Brick.
Falk was reading a 1974 version of the script when she came upon Williams’s note to the set designer about the guest room occupied by Maggie and Brick as the play opens:
“It hasn’t changed much since it was occupied by the original owners of the place, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, a pair of old bachelors who shared this room all their lives together. In other words, the room must evoke some ghosts; it is gently and poetically haunted by a relationship that must have involved a tenderness which was uncommon.”
In Falk’s three-minute prologue, Jack and Peter are seen playing cards, then dancing together to a gentle waltz. But Jack has a fatal heart attack, leaving Peter bereft. “That takes place in 1918 on a dark winter night, and then everything changes, the lights come up, and we’re in 1955, and we’re into the play,” Falk says.
The two men took in Big Daddy as a wandering boy and eventually made him their heir. Their story is referred to over and over in the play, Falk says. “Brick is terribly disparaging of them, and terribly concerned that people might think he is homosexual [too].”
Keir Dullea plays Big Daddy opposite his wife, Mia Dillon, as Big Mama. He says the prologue opens up an unexplored aspect of Big Daddy, who left home at age 10 for a decade of bumming around until Jack and Peter took him in.
“It’s all there in the play, the understanding he shows toward Brick and his relationship with Skipper,” Dullea says, slipping into his character’s deep-voiced drawl. “ ‘Son, I’ve seen all things and understood a lot of them.’ He also says, ‘I’m not shocked by anything here. I’ve lived with too much space around me to be affected by the ideas of other people.’ ”
“Tolerance!” Dullea exclaims, back in his own voice. “All those lines are there, to be explored and fully realized.”
“It’s an aspect of Big Daddy I find amazing,” Falk says. “A man of his time and place, Mississippi from 1918 to the 1950s, for him to be tolerant, it’s beautiful and it’s unexpected. I’m from that part of the country, and I can tell you there are parts of the country where it’s not accepted yet. That Big Daddy is open and not condemning his son because he might be homosexual is beautiful.”
Dullea played Brick in one of the best-known productions of the play, the 1974 revival that began at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Conn., before moving to Broadway, with Elizabeth Ashley as Maggie and Fred Gwynne as Big Daddy.
He never worked with Gwynne again, but they stayed friends until his death in 1993. Dullea and Dillon went to the Lincoln Center archives earlier this year and watched a film of Gwynne’s performance.
“His performance was so memorable, it was in my bones,” Dullea says, noting he grew a beard for the part because Gwynne wore one. “I feel like I’m kind of channeling him in a funny way. I don’t mean imitating him, but as Laurence Olivier and probably other actors have said, you steal from the best on one level or another. It’s going to be my own performance, but I’m very juiced up by the memory of Fred.”
At 77, Dullea wonders aloud if anyone else has gone from playing Brick to Big Daddy. He made a name for himself in the 1960s with an early movie role in “David and Lisa,” then starred in Stanley Kubrick’s iconic mind-bender, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
The bulk of his career has been on stage, though, and he’s relishing the chance to tackle Big Daddy, a role he has coveted for perhaps 20 years. Tall and thin, he knows he’s not an obvious choice.
Dullea says “the reason everybody thinks about Big Daddy having to be fat was because Burl Ives” — who originated the role — “happened to be fat.”
“But of course what ‘big’ referred to was really rank. Fred Gwynne was thin as a rail.”
Madeleine Lambert plays Maggie, and Steven DeMarco plays Brick.
“With Maggie I wanted a person of true deep sweetness,” Falk says, and she got that with Lambert. “Recently I saw a major production with a major actress in the role and it was played very bitchy, and I really didn’t like it.”
Was that Scarlett Johansson? “No names will be mentioned by me,” Falk says and chuckles.
As for DeMarco, “When I saw pictures of him, I thought, oh God, they’ve got this jock who’s going to play Brick,” says Dullea. “But he’s terrific.”
Big Daddy’s revelations about his past come in Act 2, which is largely a long duet between the two actors. Falk decided that needed special preparation. She invited Dullea and DeMarco to her Connecticut home in May.
“We rehearsed for three days and nights,” Falk says. “We spent 19 hours at work on that one scene, that 52-page scene. It was all blocked then. Keir was pretty much where I wanted him to be then. And I didn’t see him again till first day of rehearsals here on Aug. 7. And it was just so burnished and deepened and beautiful it brought tears to my eyes.”