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THEATRE THAT STICKS: Maggie Miller talks becoming Maggie the Cat in Williams’ famed play

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Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” has found popularity on the big screen (thanks to celebrity players Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives) and onstage for more than 40 years. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1955, and follows the Pollitt family on their cotton plantation deep in the Delta, where patriarch Big Daddy is coming home from treatment for cancer. Tricked into thinking he has been cured, Big Daddy returns on his birthday to find his alcoholic son, Brick, going through a mental and depressive meltdown, not to mention domestic turmoil with his wife, Maggie, who is just itching to have children. The family soon learns Big Daddy’s death is in fact imminent, as secrets of their lives emerge from the darkest depths and reveal the fragility of a broken family hinged on voracious greed, oppression and deceit.

Directed by Deb Gillingham, Thalian Association will open the show this week (ed. note: encore is a presenting sponsor). Big Daddy and Big Mama are being played by JR Rodriguez and Michelle Reiff. “Both are powerful performers who gave such strong yet vulnerable readings at auditions,” Gillingham tells. Bradley Coxe and Katherine Rudeseal will portray Gooper and Mae Pollitt, as Charles Calhoun and Quentin Proulx take on Doc Baugh and the preacher. The Pollitt children are covered by Baylee Allen, Gabriel Homick, and Izabel Taron, and Lily Nicole will play Lacey, one of the household servants.

“Maggie Miller and Sam Robison take on Maggie and Brick,” according to the director. “Both are bringing so much depth to these characters.” encore interviewed Miller about becoming Maggie, and what audiences can expect to see during the two-week run of the show.

encore (e): As an actor how are you capturing the Southern mien of your character? Anyone in particular you’re drawing from?

Maggie Miller (MM): My mother’s family is from Deep South Alabama, so a lot of this play is very familiar territory for me. I’m only one generation removed from the world of the play. I like to think it will help make stepping into that world a little easier, having had that history.

One Southern thing that always stands out to me in Williams’ work is the heat—the fact that it’s Deep South summertime during the play makes the stakes even higher. I think heat is almost another character in his plays.  It makes a big difference to the life of your character, if you as the actor recognize, for example, there is sweat dripping down your back as you argue with your husband in hushed tones, just hoping no one hears you through the open balcony windows.

Also the culture—the untruthfulness or mendacity (what a great word!) as Williams so clearly points out.  That is such an integral part of Southern culture, particularly during the 1950s.

My maternal grandmother was born in a tiny town called “Uriah” in Alabama, and could tell me stories of the end of the plantation days and her childhood.  It was a fascinating, if not heartbreaking, glimpse into that period of time.  She was also named “Maggie”; I was her namesake. I can still hear her voice referring to herself as “Maggie the Cat” (although she is really nothing like the character). She would have so loved to have been able to see me play this role. I hope to make her proud.

e: What do you love most about your character? Least?

MM: I love the complexity of Maggie, and trying to navigate those complexities as she journeys through the play.  Also, I believe she is an entirely different person by the end of the show, so I have to allow myself to let that slow transformation happen.  The stakes are just so high from the get-go. I said to Deb last night, “Maggie is just running, running, running as fast as she can. She is leaping hurdles and obstacles that are thrown in her path. The hurdles keep getting higher and she continues to leap, no matter the cost.”  Interestingly enough, she really is the only character that meets her goal by the conclusion.  She is also not a bad person; her heart is in the right place, although her actions and words may sometimes contradict it.  I think that is a challenge: making her likable, trying to get the audience on her side, almost rooting for her, even if they disagree with how she does it.   

e: What is your favorite line and why? What does its meaning evoke to you personally and within the greater scope of the play?

MM: I love in the first stage directions Williams describes Maggie’s voice as “both rapid and drawling,” and in her long speeches she has “the vocal tricks of a liturgical priest” and “the lines are almost sung—always a little beyond her breath so she has to gasp for another.”

That’s just fun! The challenge of that!

I’ve always been a huge fan of Shakespeare. I’ve always described speaking his words as almost like eating candy; they are just delicious in your mouth. I feel the same about Williams. Also, like Shakespeare, he writes it like he wants you to say it. It’s all right there, so you feel like you have this intimate connection to the playwright. How can you pick a favorite line?!  Although, I will say Maggie has some quick, cut-to-the-bone one line daggers that are fun to throw out there.

e: What do you find most impacting about this story?

I truly believe this play is still so relevant to today.  The themes are all there:

1. Mendacity: Look at social media! What we project of ourselves verses what is actually true;

2. Homosexuality:  tolerance vs. fear (literally in the headlines right now in NC!);

3. Greed

4. Death: None of us can escape the march of time and death—and as you start reaching the end of that march, how does your perspective changes or not;

5. Love and hate: the complexities of relationships, both familial and through marriage.

I also love the ambiguity of the ending. Williams purposefully doesn’t tie everything up into a package with a perfect little bow on top. This is a show that should make you think. It should linger with you for a while after you leave the theater.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
May 18-28, 7:30 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., 3 p.m., Sun.
Thalian Hall
310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $20-$30

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