Theatergoers can - and surely will - argue about the historical logic of the all-black “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” that opened Thursday night at the Broadhurst Theatre.
Without the reverse casting, however, we would never have seen James Earl Jones as a shattering Big Daddy, tenderly holding and kissing the sensitive head of Terrence Howard, stunning as son Brick, in an attempt to transfer his own power into the beautiful young man’s broken soul.
Without daring to re-imagine Tennessee Williams’ Mississippi plantation owners as nouveau-riche blacks in 1955, we would have been denied the sight of Phylicia Rashad squeezing her formidable self into a rare and heartbreaking interpretation of that silly dim bulb of a woman, Big Mama.
And without the bold casting of the gifted, but hardly brand-name, Anika Noni Rose instead of the usual world-class sex bomb, we might still have never seen a Maggie who could say “like a cat on a hot tin roof” a hundred different ways without sounding deranged.
The physical production is not the best looking “Cat” on Broadway in recent decades. Despite its conventional sets and hokey lighting effects, Debbie Allen has directed a shimmering ensemble that honors America’s great poet of bruised humanity.
Nobody wrote like Tennessee Williams. On the other hand, no one overwrote like him, either. As we learned from the overripe 1990 revival with Kathleen Turner and the weakling 2003 staging with Ashley Judd and Jason Patric, “Cat” has not aged as gracefully as we may have hoped. After the sexual revolution and gay liberation let the air out of his high-compression chambers, even gorgeous imagery about sensual menace and mendacity can be less majestic than ludicrous.
How remarkable, then, that this cast finds such earthy conversational ease in the emotional humidity of Williams’ Southern gothic milieu. Whatever problems one may have seeing the family in the larger society, they disappear within the closed circle of a drama about lies, greed and the mixed blessings of legacy.
Instead of playing Maggie as a squirming, fire-breathing sexual bulldozer, Rose brings an internalized lushness to the frustrated woman, a creature whose restless, up-from-poverty desperation must be intense enough to give name to a play.
The first of three acts is practically Maggie’s solo cadenza, but we do get to admire the elegance with which Howard’s Brick listens to her babbling with an eerily active sense of passive loathing. Howard, the fine movie actor in his stage debut, is a revelation in effortlessness - the personification of what Maggie calls “the charm of the defeated.”
In this production, Brick’s second-act scene with Big Daddy becomes the centerpiece of the truth-telling, a riveting interaction between loving strangers. Jones, in a performance that alone justifies this production, brings a magnificent, improvisatory dynamism to the dying self-made multimillionaire.
For the record, those naughty words were the ones Williams wanted but couldn’t use in the `50s. For once, Brick’s brother (Giancarlo Esposito) and his ever-breeding wife (Lisa Arrindell Anderson) are not played as heehaw cartoons. Allen begins each act with the seductive curls of a live saxophone, which are nice but not essential. But what is she trying to say by letting the house staff upstage the action with belligerent clowning?
The set, by Ray Klausen, is an unremarkable bedroom with a sunken sitting room and sheer walls through which family secrets are spread. But Jane Greenwood’s costumes include lots of diamonds for Big Mama and guarantee that Maggie can luxuriate in the feel of herself under silk.
Allen, better known as a choreographer than a director, plots such perilous fight scenes that we fear Brick might actually kill Maggie with his crutch. Danger is everywhere. After all these years, that’s thrilling.