James Earl Jones and Adrian Lester
in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
(© Nobby Clark)
James Earl Jones and Adrian Lester
in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
(© Nobby Clark)
Debbie Allen's solid, all-black staging of Tennessee Williams' classic play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, now at the Novello Theatre, is dramatically satisfying if a little overstretched and patchy in places. But it has a real ace up its sleeve in the form of James Earl Jones' domineering Big Daddy.

Indeed, the second act waltz between Big Daddy, the father dying of cancer and not destined to see another birthday, and his tortured, liquor-soaked son, Brick (Adrian Lester), hobbled both by a broken ankle and by guilt and disgust over the recent death of his close friend Skipper, is a fine piece of acting, compelling and layered, covering some complex emotional terrain.

Lester acquits himself very well indeed as Brick, and his performance is deceptively low-key. He's convincingly physical as the former athlete, cool and brooding as he waits for the sublime 'click' when the alcohol takes hold. Moreover, he visually bristles with revulsion whenever his clingy, childless wife Maggie 'the cat' (Sanaa Lathan) is nearby. Lester's achievement is that he manages to convey a lot while often remaining the silent focus of other people's emotions and needs. Lathan, in turn, hides waves of pain behind her over-polished perky façade; the first act is a near monologue on her part and she carries it well.

In the supporting roles, Peter de Jersey and Nina Sosanya are amusingly uptight as elder son Gooper and his remarkably fertile wife Mae, mother of all those "no-neck monsters." Meanwhile, Phylicia Rashad, as Big Mama, the matriarch of this messy Mississippi brood, provides a necessary point of warmth amongst the hate and recrimination that permeates Williams' play. Her love for both her husband and son, despite their copious flaws, are palpable.

But the show belongs to Jones and those famous bass tones that veer between a bellow and a purr. His Big Daddy is a proud and volatile man, yet he's not completely incapable of tenderness. He senses his son's hurt and tries to reach him through the alcoholic fog.

The racial twist provided by Allen's casting occasionally places some of Williams' lines in a new context -- especially Big Daddy's constant praising of his land and his achievements -- but otherwise it soon ceases to register. And although her production has relocated events to the 1980s (which casts Brick's self-hatred in a slightly different light), the design team seems reluctant to pin it too overtly to a particular decade. Instead, Morgan Large's handsome slatted set makes Brick's bedroom resemble something akin to a cage, a space ripe for eavesdropping. And since the walls are permeable, nothing stays secret for long.