More than 60 years after its debut, ‘Cat’ may be Tennessee Williams’ most contemporary play.
In a candid Q&A, Joe Sykes, who plays Brick in the new GET production, talks about Brick’s tangled sexuality, Tennessee Williams, and the delights of dysfunctional families.
Once again, the Pollitt family is gathering for Big Daddy’s birthday, bringing their secrets, naked betrayals… and mendacity. Georgia Ensemble Theatre is staging the Pulitzer prize-winning drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams, Sept 12—29.
Joe Sykes is Brick, Big Daddy’s favorite son. A former football star, once lithe, now alcoholic, he’s hobbled by deep secrets and a drunken midnight dash over hurdles at the local high school.
Q: The play was Tennessee Williams’ favorite and his dark humor moves through melodrama, comedy and tragedy. There’s duplicity, manipulation, greed, and marital dysfunction. Which of these is your personal favorite?
Joe: I like marital dysfunction the most. The top of the show is Brick passively hating Maggie and Maggie aggressively longing after Brick. And while that seems tragic, it becomes funny. Tennessee Williams’ language offers crushing wit within the element of love lost.
I’ve really enjoyed John Maxwell who is playing Big Daddy. He’s from Jackson, Mississippi and he’s done a one-man show based on William Faulkner, but he was born to play Big Daddy. When Big Mama starts crying in the corner, Big Daddy says, “What’s going on with What’s-Her-Name over there?” And I love that type of just brutal treatment of people. Of course in this script, in the 1950s, that brutality is usually directed from men towards women. But towards anybody, when handled deftly by writer and actor, I find it to be hysterical. I think those types of barbs are so revealing. So, yeah, marital discord is my favorite of all the friction in the show.
Q: For decades the big questions about Brick have been: “Is he gay or isn’t he? Is he homophobic? Is his marriage to Maggie a sham?” How do you view these questions?
Joe: It’s easier to talk about Brick’s sexuality in 2019 because, as a society, we have explored the gender spectrum so much. In the 1950s, when this play was first produced, even in the 1970s (when Williams gave it a major revision), the idea of bisexualism was not something that everybody thought of as a possibility. And while homophobia is still rampant in our culture, knowledge of this social spectrum is almost universal—it’s out there. That said, the script supports a hot and heavy attraction between Brick and Maggie. It’s just that Maggie, before the time of the play, made Brick face something about his sexuality and its impact on his friend Skipper that he never wanted to acknowledge. Maggie might not understand how much she’s hurt Brick and she might not fully understand that that’s why he’s punishing her.
But for Brick to understand that he had the same impulses with Skipper as he has for Maggie makes him hate himself. Brick hates gays and therefore hates himself.
And this is where that great Williams’ word ‘mendacity’ comes in. Brick hates dirty lies and liars and he hates himself because he’s a liar. He’s bisexual and, cruel joke that it is, he’s homophobic.
Q: As an actor, how do you get into the character of Brick? What are your starting points?
Joe: With Jimmy, (director James Donadio) we go to the table and work out the rhythm of the scenes before we get on our feet. Rhythm and pace are so important to this play. It’s funny, the crutch, that’s been something that’s ‘held me up’ because walking with the crutch gives you a certain rhythm. I have to adjust my body so much to say my words in a way that’s effective and I have, at times, fallen into a boring, predictable rhythm because of the crutch. So I’m working with the rhythm of the text, fighting the hobble of the crutch and then we throw in all the drinking I do in the show—a half bottle of bourbon before the end of the first act.
But when it comes to the character choices for Brick…. Well, as an actor you have to explore what it means to be homophobic, understand self-hatred and familial dysfunction… and that’s deep, serious work.
Q: You’re starring with Kate Donadio MacQueen as Margaret—Maggie the Cat. You’ve worked with her before, for example, in Wolves by Steve Jockey at Actor’s Express. Does that familiarity make it easier to take on a difficult role?
Joe: Oh, yes. Aside from Wolves, where Kate was the Narrator and I was Wolf, we were in an early play of Steve Yockey’s called Skin at Dad’s Garage (2007). We were coworkers who had an affair. And we were also in Suddenly Last Summerby Tennessee Williams at Actor’s Express (2009) where I played Dr. Curkrowicz and she played Catherine Holly. So we’ve had experience playing Tennessee Williams together. And we have experience playing repressed sexuality together.
We actually won an award—Kate and I. Dad’s Garage has these Daddy Awards and so back in 2007, when we were in Skin, we won an award for Best Kiss. I said then, and it’s still true, Kate always makes me better.
It’s a real skill to be able to be consistent and specific and still be listening and available to your scene partner and change what you’re doing in the moment. Because you have to—each line is determined by the line before it. But to go home and do your homework and come up with such specific choices that really affect your scene partner is vital—Kate does that. Kate comes up with specific, consistent choices but still retains such flexibility. She has laser-point focus, where I can be just an interesting bear that tears the stage apart. But we complement each other. She makes me act with more clarity and purpose and I’d like to believe that I draw out a more impassioned, maybe even rawer, emotional performance than most of her other scene partners.
Q: The play takes place on a cotton plantation in Mississippi. Is there a special pleasure in performing it in Georgia? Are you relying on your Atlanta audience to enjoy a particular resonance with Williams’ larger-than-life, Southern characters?
Joe: I don’t know. In my time in Atlanta, we haven’t done Tennessee Williams’ plays often. I thinkCat on a Hot Tin Roof was performed here last in 2005. Maybe it’s because Williams is so surreal. The ambiguity that is in all of Williams’ plays is hard for audiences to take. Some folks may see the name and connect it with the movie. (A popular movie version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, was released in 1958.) The play is different. People end up watching something they didn’t expect. But because it’s written so well, and ultimately we perform it in such a way, that people enjoy it. Big Daddy alone is worth the price of admission.
And, to tell you the truth, there’s a more personal attraction for me. When I get an opportunity to do a classic, it’s often hard to find the social importance because it seems like we’ve gone beyond it. We have all these other problems that we need to address and we need our art to help us work through them. But Tennessee Williams is so good, Shakespeare is so good, that their themes still carry through today.
I have this mission statement as an actor: I’m doing theater so people who watch can understand that they’re not alone, that the feelings that they have are feelings that many other people have. The catharsis comes from realizing ‘It’s ok to feel whatever I’m feeling because here is an example of it happening in front of me.’
But performing for this Georgia audience, you just hope that they walk out not excited to go get a drink or eat some pie. That’s when you’ve done your job, when they don’t want to get pie instantly; they want to talk about it. Or at least talk about it while they get some pie.