A little Body Heat is being applied to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof these days in the shapely, silk-slipped form of Kathleen Turner, hiking the theatre temperature appreciably. She turned instant star her first time on film — as the tragically literal femme fatale of the 1981’s Body Heat — and she has been circling for a Broadway opening ever since. It actually comes to pass this month when Turner stars, in her glamorous and predatory fashion, as Maggie the Cat, prowling through Tennessee William’s 1955 Pulitzer Prize–winner about Southern-fried avarice and mendacity.
“It’s a great role, period,” Turner declares with emphatic enthusiasm. “I’ve been thinking about doing Maggie for a long time – for years, I think. I like her spirit, her indomitability. She’s very, very brave, and she doesn’t ever really give up. It’s the sort of role where an actress picks up the script and goes, ‘Oh, wow, I talk for 50 minutes.’ and then gets on stage and goes, ‘Oh God, I talk for 50 minutes.’ “ Indeed, as the playwright has drawn the battle lines, Maggie is the dominant force in the first and third acts; the middle act is the exclusive arena of her father-in-law, Big Daddy Pollitt, a Mississippi millionaire dying of cancer trying to set his disheveled household in order. As performed here, this boils down to something of a dramatic relay race for Turner and Charles Durning. “It’s a passing off, back and forth, “ she concedes, “Sometimes, when Charles comes off the second act, he says, ‘Top that, honey!’ “
Certainly, there’s conflict aplenty in the piece. Big Daddy’s eminent demise has prompted a mad scramble for his wealth. His first born, Gooper, and wife Mae and their pint-sized posse of “no-neck monsters” have taken the lead, if not the whole field, since brother Brick prefers to sit out the race — as well as his sexless marriage to Maggie — retreating into booze while he grieves over the death of a football buddy (a probable suicide and possible homosexual). To protect her turf and inheritance, Maggie fabricates the lie that she’s with child — and then prevails on Brock to make an honest woman of her. Whew!
Barry and Fran Weissler assembled a powerhouse supporting cast from every medium imaginable: Turner and Durning are the feature-film contingent; their Brick hails from the recent Broadway revival of Born Yesterday, Daniel Hugh Kelly; Big Mama is TV’s Flo, Polly Holliday; and the rest are Off-Broadway reliables – Ray Gill as Gooper, Debra Jo Rupp as Mae/Sister Woman, Nesbitt Blaisdell as Reverend Tooker, and Jerome Dempsey as Doctor Baugh. Completing the eclectic mix is a director from the Royal Shakespeare Company, Howard Davies, who brought Les Liaisons Dangereuses to Broadway and staged a London edition of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
It was the Weisslers who suggested Davies, and Turner quickly concurred — on the basis of a little pop quiz: “I said, ‘How many laughs in the first act?’ He said, ‘Oh, so many.’ I said, ‘Good.’ It was always my intention to make the play funnier than the public impression of it. I think people come in expecting a lot of suffering. But, if you look at the lines, it’s hard to imagine Tennessee didn’t intend those laughs. I mean, the third act is a farce, with Gooper and Mae telling Big Mama that Bid Daddy’s dying — ‘He’s turning yellow, Mama’ — or them saying at once, ‘Now, Big Mama, you had to know,’ He specifically states they say that line in unison. Personally, I always thought Maggie was really quite an entertainer whoever was in the room. I think Tennessee would have liked the amount of humor we’ve kept.”
Jessica Lange, who played Maggie in a television adaptation, has said that sexiness is not something one acts, but Turner begs to differ — particularly in respect to this work. “If that’s an element of the character in the play, I don’t see why you can’t act it. In fact, I don’t see why you can’t act almost anything except self-pity. You can’t act that interestingly, I don’t think. But it’s certain that Tennessee’s intention that Maggie wants this man very, very much. Just look at the way he sets it up: These two people come onstage. This woman takes off her dress. The guy comes out in a towel. And then you find out they haven’t touched each other in ages. If you feel a real pull there, you’ve got to believe these two had an extraordinary relationship at one time and really should be together, and they’re denying — or certainly, Brick’s denying – the attraction. When she finally gets to touch him at the end of the play, it’s such a release.”
The homosexual relationship that may or may not have existed between Brick and his football friend is frustratingly undefined — but then that element usually was in 50’s plays — and for this reason no attempt has been made to move the story into modern times. “ We had to keep an aura of the period because of Maggie’s options. The social shame of the marriage breaking up was enough to keep her in her place back then, but now it’s silly. Now, she would just leave him if the homosexuality were real — or, at least she would have that option.” Ironically, in her only other brush with Broadway (replacing Carol Potter as Judith in Albert Innaurato’s Gemini), Turner tended over another impotent male. “God, I hope this doesn’t become my stage signature,” she laughs, adding a honkytonk postscript a la Mae West: “Lemme set ya straight, honey.”
Nine years have passed since Turner’s movie debut in Body Heat. In the interim she has solidified her standing with a string of hit flicks (Prizzi’s Honor, Peggy Sue Got Married, Romancing the Stone, The Jewel of the Nile, and most recently, The War of the Roses), all the while trying to get back to Broadway.
“I just love doing stage work. I love having people there and getting an immediate response and not having someone around yelling ‘Cut.’ This is an old dream of mine — the whole business: going out of town for tryouts and coming in with it. It’s what I always thought I’d be doing — until movies got in the way.”