Well, here we are again, back in the land of “spastic colons” and “neckless monsters” and “liariousness”, with all those rich, rowdy cotton-growing Pollitts from the Mississippi Delta.
We first met the Pollitts on Broadway in 1955 in Cat on a hot tin roof, Tennessee Williams’ personal favorite play and his second Pulitzer Prize winner. Since then, there have been five Broadway revivals and a movie version with Metrocolor editions starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. The audience is now so prepared that they can sing along to the dialogue.
But the Pollitts are a lively bunch, full of dramatic sparks, so they’re back for more, this time – for the first time – Off-Broadway. The Tennessee Williams Estate, which is notoriously picky about who they get to present its plays, lets the… Cat from the bag and have Ruth Stage, a Toms River stage group, bring it to New York and present it at The Theater at St. Clements (423 W. 46e Street) from July 25 to August 14. Directed by Joe Rosario and produced by Matt de Rogatis (who also acts as Brick Pollitt, opposite Sonoya Mizuno’s Maggie the Cat), the show has had a rocky ride to opening due to Covid cancellations.
“I gave up on a few shows because it was a project I really wanted to be involved in,” admits Alison Fraser, a new recruit from New York. “Things came up and I said, ‘I have to stay open to these guys.’ It’s renegade theatre. They do it in their own way and that’s very exciting.”
Fraser himself is one of their innovations. She’s got to be the slimmest Big Mama Pollitt ever – the first you’d suspect of a stripper past (which Fraser does in a way: she was Tessie Tura in the Patti LuPone Gypsy). “I wanted Big Mama to be slim and attractive. I think Big Daddy calls her fat and fat just to torture her,” she says. I don’t know a skinny woman who doesn’t think she can’t lose a few pounds. My mom used to weigh 100 pounds and always said, ‘Oh, I have to watch my weight.’ Same with Big Mama.”
Fraser’s desire to play Big Mama was not so different from her desire to play Tessie Tura. “I’d never really thought of myself as either one,” she confesses, “but when Arthur Laurents introduced me to the role of Tessie, he said, ‘I want to make this role different. I want to make her very angry.’ ThatI could tell because Tessie is a woman with no education, and she’s aging quickly from the only job she’s had for years and years. What the hell is she going to do? In real life, Tessie went out with Gypsy and served as her companion/dresser.”
Likewise, Fraser found a lot more of me in Big Mama. “I just don’t think a pathetic Big Mama is right for this production. She’s not pathetic. She doesn’t cry much. I choose my crying moments very carefully. Big Daddy won’t make me cry and leave the room. I just say, ‘You’re just an idiot. I know you don’t mean that. I know you didn’t mean it in your heart. I know you didn’t.’ If someone is sick, you have to give them a break because they are facing real horror. Their bodies fail them. Their minds are filled with fear. ‘What’s going to happen to my wife? My children? My grandchildren?’ What’s going to happen to this company I’ve built?’ When someone is sick, they often lash out at the person closest to them, their caregiver. That’s what happens here. The whole sex thing is really about impotence. It’s not that he finds his wife unattractive. It’s that he is sick with colon cancer and now has no libido. That’s deadly for him, because it was part of his motivation in life.”
This can include a voice-of-experience ring. In 2003, Fraser lost her husband, songwriter-comedian Rusty Magee, to colon cancer. “Again, that was one of the reasons I was drawn to this material. I do understand what a traumatic illness can do to the dynamics of a family household, especially with children involved. This Big Mama is a very capable woman. She’s been caring for a man with colon cancer for five years now – and his business for three years. It’s clear they had sex until he got sick.”
Big Mama’s competence grows in Act III, once the mendacity of a spastic colon is revealed to be completely cancerous. “I wanted it to be a really strong take on Big Mama because she’s in the catbird seat,” she says. “A friend of a southern gentleman, Hob Bryan, the senior senator from Mississippi, explained it to me as a statute. He said, “Under Mississippi law, the widow has the right to remain on the plantation for the rest of her life.” There is no way that Big Mama will be disinherited. She will always eat a big steak until she dies.”
The version of Cat on a hot tin roof presented in St. Clements is the one Williams restored for the 1974 Broadway revival starring Elizabeth Ashley and Keir Dullea. Blasphemy has been reinstated, along with passages director Elia Kazan Williams removed from the original 1955 production. There’s more good news: two of Gooper and Mae Pollitt’s “no-neck monsters” didn’t make the finals. The result, Fraser believes, may shock customers, especially those who remember the even more castrated film.
Fraser, from a Tony-nominated musical past (1988) Romance/Romance and from 1991 The Secret Garden), has more than strippers and widows-to-be in her gallery. She is a wonderfully deranged nun (Charles Busch’s .) The Divine Sister), two first ladies (Nancy Reagan and Betty Ford, both in Michael John LaChiusa’s) First Daughters Suite), singers with beehive ‘dos, an arrogant old-fashioned aristocrat (Shaw’s Heartbreak House), and Lizzie Borden.
As an acting survivor, in short, she’s up for anything, with the following qualifications: “as long as it’s an interesting piece with dedicated, passionate people involved in my process, which is basically, ‘I want that show to be great. You “You can listen to what I have to say about it or not. I may have ten bad ideas, but I’ll have one or two great ideas. You listen to them all, and you edit them, okay?” That’s really what Joe does.”
And that’s the little secret that keeps her working chronically.