In 1955, Tennessee Williams—an award-winning playwright of dozens of works, including A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie—won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama (his second) for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The play, later reinterpreted for a 1958 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, revolves around three couples within a Mississippi family who are dealing with interpersonal struggles, greed, death and deceit.
Director Sharon Veselic spoke with us about what attracted her to the piece and why it continues to resonate.
Spoiler alert: Some plot details are revealed in this interview.
What drew you to the play?
I directed it once before, 10 years ago, and it’s my favorite play. I love Tennessee Williams. I think this play is his best, and it was his favorite too. It’s the just staying power of it, the drama of it, the presentation. It’s difficult; it’s very wordy, it covers a lot of personalities, their flaws, their plus and minuses. I’m really proud of my cast and my designers; what I asked of them was a stretch because I wanted a different look. Tennessee Williams, when he first wrote this, said that he did not think any walls should be on the set. He said it was a reflection of the cast talking so much about the walls, and people listening and trying to sneak around and hear what they’re saying. And that’s when I said to my set designer: “We’re taking the walls out and putting up the sheers.”
Secrets, something with which most of us have experience, play a large role in this play. Do you think that’s one of the reasons it remains appealing more than 60 years after it was written?
I think so. It also [has] the old theme running through it: the self-made man, which is Big Daddy. And people not telling the truth. They talk about liars and disgust and people not telling them the truth. And I just looked at it and went, “That’s still going on today.” How many times do we not tell people that they are dying or we’re dying? You always hold back on it for some reason, and you always have families where there is money involved. Even the best of families, I think, when they start divvying up the family fortunes, people turn into different animals.
We say what people in front of us want to hear, and then we leave the room and go, “Yeah, well, I wasn’t quite that up-front with them.”
How are you using set design, costumes and lighting to support the work?
It was difficult, and it’s a very contemporary set. I think in community theater, you have this vision of three walls and talk about “Don’t break the fourth wall.” It’s just that theater is changing so much right now, and your younger audiences—and the audiences that go to a lot of theater—are seeing more abstract sets. You’re seeing projections, different lighting. You really have to catch up to the mindset of people in 2018. The play itself only calls for a bedroom. We opened things up a lot more just to make it visually more interesting and to show the house.
What do you see as the play’s primary message?
I think people are stronger than they think they are. I always look at Big Daddy and how he comes to terms with it in the end. The strength there—I think he could have gone in a different direction. Maggie finds the strength to lie to them all, knowing she’s going to figure this out. That was a big thing for someone to do back then—you’re not pregnant, your husband is not interested and you’re telling people you are [pregnant]. She’s very strong. I love the strength of this, and I love the “Don’t give up; keep moving.” Always move forward, always fight for what you want.
Interview has been edited and condensed.