There is so much bitterness, resentment, anger, rage and manipulation in Tennessee Williams’s classic tale of a turbulent family birthday that it makes November’s bleak, rainy climate feel like a sunny day at the beach.
Every one of its major characters has distinctly unattractive flaws that bar their complete entrance into the audience’s heart, from the posturing and sycophancy of the inheritance-hungry Mae and Gooper, to the self-alienation of drunken, former sportsman Brick and the rudeness of Big Daddy towards his wife, which grows like an already rotten plant from the news he has recently received.
That news is that his recent medical tests prove he is clear from cancer. Unfortunately for him, that is not the truth, and while the rest of the family know the reality of his situation and vie for his favour, Big Daddy and Big Mama revel in blissful ignorance.
Of course, these flaws and failings are what make Williams’s characters human and believable. With all the play’s action taking place in one stuffy Mississippi bedroom and in real time, it is their painful, hurtful and, on occasions, tender interaction that pushes the play forward.
In the hands of James Earl Jones, Big Daddy cuts an imposing figure, overpowering everyone around him in size and sound. For the most part barking orders, his moments of tenderness come with a stillness that cuts through the gruff exterior. The love of Phylicia Rashad’s tottering Big Mama for her husband is palpable, making his actions devastating, while Adrian Lester’s Brick is, for much of the performance, a husk of a man, isolated and dead behind the eyes. Sanaa Lathan, as Maggie, is desperate, agitating, manipulative and somehow still a little endearing.
Much was written, when this production was first announced, about it breaking new ground as the first all black cast of a Tennessee Williams play in the West End. When you drive to the heart of the piece – the desperation for survival, the need for love, the posturing, resentment, lies and hard truths – its tale is universal and applies to all humanity regardless of ethnicity.