Director and leading actors take on a Tennessee Williams giant at Berkshire Theatre Group
STOCKBRIDGE — When opportunity came knocking on actress Rebecca Brooksher's door, there was no way she could slam that door in opportunity's face.
When actor Michael Raymond-James went knocking on opportunity's door, opportunity, likewise, welcomed him in.
As a result, Brooksher and Raymond-James are co-starring as Maggie and her husband, Brick, in Tennessee Williams' 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," at Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Main Stage, where it officially opens Saturday evening after a series of previews.
The production is being directed by David Auburn, who worked with Brooksher at the Juilliard School in New York and directed her in Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie" and another Williams play, "Period of Adjustment," at BTG.
"It was a good experience," Auburn said of their work on "Period of Adjustment" during an interview on the terrace of BTG's Unicorn Theatre, where he was joined by Brooksher and Raymond-James. "I wanted to do one of Williams' big ones and this certainly is one of his big ones.
"I've never seen a production of this play that got past the stereotypes. I wanted to see if I could figure this one out."
"It really is a big deal to play an iconic role with someone you trust," Brooksher said, referring to Auburn.
"You can't say 'no' to this. Maggie has been a role that has been something to crack for a lot of people and I wanted to give it a shot."
Television and movie actor Raymond-James went chasing after the role of Brick.
"It's been eight years since I've been on stage," said the actor, who recently starred in the NBC series, "Game of Silence."
"I've been working a lot and feeling a little soul-sick. Working with people like David is one of the reasons I'm in this career. This kind of brain trust just doesn't happen often."
Raymond-James was in a hotel room in Austin, Texas, where he was staying during a promotional tour for "Game of Silence," when he got a call to come to New York to audition.
"David saw something in a tape I had sent," Raymond-James said.
He took the next flight out and after two auditions was offered the role.
"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is set in the Mississippi plantation of Big Daddy Pollitt, who has gathered his family around him to celebrate his 65th birthday. He has just returned from a cancer clinic where the doctors have told him he is healthy.
But mortality nonetheless hangs in the steamy delta night air. Over the course of the evening the deceptions, secrets and lies that have sustained the Pollitt family rise to the surface.
"Everyone in the play has some vulnerability," Auburn said. "For (the childless) Maggie and Brick, in particular, the clock is ticking.
"There is an urgency and tension that unites all three acts of the play. The clock that ticks for Maggie and Brick, in fact, is ticking for everyone as they all work to resolve their lives before this day ends."
The task is neither easy nor simple. Loyalty is defined and redefined. Secrets and lies abound. It is no accident that the word "mendacity" turns up with recurring frequency.
"We're talking about people who are trying to communicate and not being able to," said Raymond-James."Sometimes the ear hears what it wants to hear, the eye sees what it wants to see."
Brick retreats. So much of him, Raymond-James says, "is purposefully hidden. He dodges any conversation of consequence.
"This is such a fascinating part. I don't think I ever realized how vulnerable Brick is."
He spends much of the first trying to dodge Maggie who, Brooksher says, "talks more in an hour than I do in a day."
Maggie is "desperate," Brooksher said. "It's been a long while since she and Brick have had sex. She is trying to keep that alive. If she is manipulative, it's because of her need and her desperation."
Raymond-James describes Maggie as "feisty and charming."
"And she's good at it," Brooksher adds.
"Maggie is fighting for her dream. This child she wants to have with Brick is necessary because of Big Daddy's will and who will inherit his money and estate. But it's also a way of pulling Brick out of the dark."
The fact that Auburn and Brooksher have worked together before has been helpful to Brooksher in working through Maggie's complex layers, and for Auburn as well. There is a shorthand between them; an easy familiarity.
"I can be confused with Rebecca over a moment in a scene or a line and that's okay," Auburn said. "We're eager to figure things out."
Raymond-James says his development of Brick has involved constant discovery.
"The work we do in the room is instinctive, impulsive; ideas flow and crystallize the more you do it," he says.
"But it's also the play, Williams' writing. This play really needs to be performed, spoken, to understand it. It holds its mysteries within.
"Mentally, physically and emotionally it's exhausting, but in a good way."
"It's a big show in terms of its emotional scope," Auburn said. "It's a feast."
What: "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" by Tennessee Williams. Directed by David Auburn
Who: Berkshire Theatre Group
When: Tonight (preview) through July 16 (press opening 8 p.m. Saturday). Evenings — Monday through Thursday at 7; Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Saturday at 2
Where: Fitzpatrick Main Stage, 83 E. Main St., Stockbridge
Tickets: $62; preview $45
How: (413) 997-4444; berkshiretheatregroup.org; at Colonial Theatre box office — 111 South St., Pittsfield; at Fitzpatrick Main Stage box office — 83 E. Main St.
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