Terrence Howard has never been in a play before. But you wouldn’t know it from his debut turn in this Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Pulling off Brick Pollitt means asking an audience to buy a man’s pain when that pain is never really explained, to feel his sorrow while he knocks back the bourbon and lobs unpolished expressions of disgust at his doting wife every time she tries to touch him. Yet Howard gets our every sympathy. It is a stunning performance of lasting effect, and, under the direction of Debbie Allen, he translates the subtleties of his film-acting beautifully to the big stage.
Forced to visit his parents’ Mississippi plantation on his dying father’s birthday, Brick prefers to drink in silence while the rest fight over who will inherit Big Daddy’s colossal estate. Though we learn quickly enough that he’s grieving over the recent drink-induced death of his best friend, Skipper, Brick never answers the accusations of his wife, Maggie, who believes the two men shared a bond that went beyond friendship. The full story never really comes out, and such is the detail of Williams’s writing and the sensitivity of Howard’s performance that we do not need it. Ambiguity and secrecy are what the play aims to unravel, but not to completion.
Howard’s performance is especially impressive considering the lineup of theatrical heavy hitters he has to play against: Tony-winner Anika Noni Rose as Maggie, James Earl Jones as Big Daddy, and Phylicia Rashad as Big Mama — Rashad being the star player in this bullpen. She is, simply, wonderful, bringing something of everyone’s mama, big or small, to the blustery matriarch whose vast wealth never bought her refinement, stature or even the kindness of her husband.
And you can’t get a much bigger Big Daddy than James Earl Jones. Though the screws on his intentions could use tightening, Jones’s epic second-act confrontation with Howard is still harrowing, an unsettling head-to-head between father and son in which the two never reach accord or understanding, though they try. This will be a spar worth returning for, once the run picks up speed.
In Anika Noni Rose we get a Maggie as alluring as Liz Taylor and as tender. Her futile attempts to elicit the smallest sign of love from her husband, coupled with her overwhelming need to win his family’s inheritance, show a young woman determined to stay in control yet quickly coming apart.
The only misstep appears to be in the direction of Giancarlo Esposito and Lisa Arrindell Anderson as Gooper and Mae, Brick’s plotting older brother and his wife. The two take what they perceive as the characters’ insincerity and turn it into out and out pantomime — complete with madly swinging arms and exclamation points after every word. One hopes that as the run continues their performances will come down to meet the others’.
Debbie Allen and producer Stephen C. Byrd deserve our thanks for laboring to bring us this first all-African-American Broadway production of the play, and for turning the stage lights for the first time on Terrence Howard.