Hartford Stage. Directed by Michael Wilson
Michael Wilson is really in his element directing Williams. He puts a truly fine cast through their paces in bravura style — especially Alyssa Bresnahan as Maggie and James Colby as Brick. Elizabeth Ashley, no stranger to Williams, is fine as Big Mama, as is William Biff McGuire as Big Daddy. The timing is just as crisp as it can be, the dynamics of the script are transferred transparently to the stage, and it all comes together so well that it is just thrilling to witness it. For long stretches of time in the first and second acts I was so thoroughly immersed in the fictional reality that I was almost unaware of sitting in the audience. This is Williams at his best (his Pulitzer is well deserved), Wilson and his actors at their best, and Hartford Stage at its best. (If only it could be always at, or at least near, its best.)
A note on the text of the play in the program informs us not only of the origins of the play in Williams’s short fiction and drama but of the revisions in Act III insisted on by Kazan for the first production: (1) make Maggie more sympathetic; (2) have Brick undergo some change by the end, and (3) bring back Big Daddy. Williams did as he was asked, but was not happy with the result. In its published version both versions of Act III were included. Still later, in 1974, a revision for American Shakespeare Theatre with Elizabeth Ashley as Maggie reached Broadway. Williams included various combinations of versions of Act III; this text is being used in this, the fiftieth anniversary production.
I think Williams may never have gotten Act III right. Big Daddy is too strong a character to omit from Act III, but his presence is problematic. He has already found out at the end of Act II that he has been lied to about the seriousness of his condition. We know and he knows he is going to die, and we hear his scream of pain from offstage at the end, or near it. Meanwhile he is brought on stage so that Maggie can pretend she is pregnant with Brick’s child — this is her birthday present to Big Daddy. And the play ends, in this contrived way, with Maggie thanking Brick for not challenging her lie and then luring Brick into bed to make the lie come true.
Nice happy ending — and we get the idea that Big Daddy will live long enough to will the plantation to Brick and that Brick will duly pull himself together. It all just doesn’t ring true. But at least we have seen Brick have the truth wormed out of him by his father — when Brick’s friend calls him and tells him the truth about his homosexual feelings for Brick, the latter just hung up on him, causing his friend to commit suicide and leave Brick with a heavy burden of guilt. One could argue that this admission on Brick’s part was the first step toward mental health. Still, a more believable Act III would not have moved things so far along for the sake of Kazan’s sense of what would please a mainstream audience.
Be that as it may, the script as it has been accepted for this production offers wonderful opportunities in Acts I and II for these fine actors, and they realize all of them. Bresnahan is quite wonderful in her athletic, cat-like slinking and leaping around the set. Colby is a brick, as he has to be, so stolid, so unashamed of his alcoholic condition, his guilt monstrous yet masked, yet ultimately transparent: a hard, demanding role to play. Two actors so very different, yet beautifully matched. There is a certain weakness in the character of Big Daddy; I sensed it in Burl Ives in the film version and thought it might just be Ives and his high tenor voice. But, no, it’s the character, who has a certain ineffectuality about him — he can’t make the people, especially the women, around him keep quiet, and so is constantly yelling at them; no quiet authority here. And yet he has a real regard for truth and integrity and believes there are consequences to actions. And in the long, quite wonderful scene with Brick in Act II, so intense, yet so exquisitely timed by Williams, he proves his mettle once and for all.
What a pleasure to see this all so well done. Never mind if the third act is not very satisfying; the first two are full of the stuff of authentic dramatic art.