Tempers flare and temperatures soar in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play written in 1955. With Scarlett Johansson in the role of Maggie, the current Broadway revival sizzles with a large dose of familial resentment and mendacity, as the action unfolds at the Richard Rogers Theatre in what Ben Brantley of The New York Times calls “a palatial bedroom of a set by Christopher Oram.” The lighting is by Neil Austin, with sound by Adam Cork and costumes by Julie Weiss.
From a British viewpoint, “I guess the notion of the American South is a slightly romanticized one,” admits Oram. “The images one most often sees, barring those of Katrina, tend to be dreamy and nostalgic.”
This notion translates to that palatial bedroom where Oram describes the drapes on the French windows as “gauzes, painted in the same style as the surrounding cloths, to better integrate the outside and inside worlds, and heighten the feeling that this room, this cage containing Maggie and Brick, is at the center of this huge and verdant plantation.” Oram’s color palette for the fabric is all “soft grays and sepias, a choice to better reflect the nostalgic air I wished to convey in the design and to better heighten the sense of period,” he says.
ShowMotion built the set, and as Oram explains, “I had a brilliant associate in the States by the name of Tim Mackabee, who shepherded the set through the shops while I was out of town, and he speaks ‘fluent Broadway’ on my behalf, when mine is a little faltering!” Oram also offers a shout out to Buist Bickley, his props associate who, he says, “understood the design so brilliantly and found all the beautiful furniture and fixtures.”
Although this play is frequently seen both on and off Broadway, Oram had not seen it before he designed this revival, so he was able to “treat it as I treat every new job, as exactly that: a new job,” says the UK-based designer. “Every play was performed for the first time once. What does it matter to me how other people approached it previously? This is my collaborators’ and my response to the material, no one else’s.” While Oram finds that we live in an age, as he puts it, “lazily desperate to make judgment by way of comparison,” he doesn’t want to turn down a job because someone else has done it first. “Every production is unique to the time, place, and people that are doing it. This was mine, and the challenge was getting it right and making it good.”
In evoking the period and emotions of the play, Oram notes that Williams’ work has very clear stage directions as to the nature of the design. “I don’t feel it’s my place to question the writer’s intent, particularly when I find both the period and the world for which he wrote so enticing,” the set designer says. “He describes a relatively abstract space, infused with the ghosts of the room’s previous tenants, and that is what I sought to realize on the stage.”
Oram and Austin have a long history of collaborating together, “but this was the first time I’d actually given him a set to light with no walls to get in the way,” Oram admits. “The play takes place over the course of one evening, so charting the time of day with light through the setting of sun and rising moon were a vital part of the storytelling. The dying sunlight shading into the room through the gauzy drapes is some of Neil’s most beautiful work, I think.”