Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” has been performed by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Natalie Wood, Laurence Olivier, Jessica Lange, Tommy Lee Jones, Rip Torn and James Earl Jones.
It’s no wonder then that Harlequin Productions Linda Whitney waited to direct the show until she had assembled just the right cast. It’s opening this weekend at the State Theater.
“For a show like this, where you have these iconic characters, you need to be assured that you have the actors you know will make it work,” said Whitney, who runs Harlequin with her husband, Scot Whitney. “I never choose a big project unless I feel confident that the actors are available. I don’t go out and audition a lot for a show like this.”
Her cast for the play about a wealthy and turbulent family living on a cotton plantation in 1950s Mississippi is made up mostly of Harlequin regulars, led by Helen Harvester as Maggie, Russ Holm as Big Daddy, and Aaron Lamb as Brick.
Linda Whitney, who is designing the set as well as directing the show, has been thinking about this one for a long time.
“I really have a good time with the old classics,” she said. “Years ago, I did a production of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and really enjoyed the production and enjoyed the text.
“These big old plays are so rich in language and character and themes. They’re really enjoyable to dig into.”
While the plot has enough secrets and machinations to rival “Hamlet,” “Cat” is no over-the-top drama.
“It sounds like it’s really one long slog of people shouting at each other, but it isn’t,” she said. “It’s really a rich play. The dialog moves through these relationships and reveals all of these personality facets. And it’s not without humor; there’s a lot of funny business.”
She realized that this was the year for “Cat” while watching Russ Holm play Uncle Willie in last season’s “The Philadelphia Story.”
“I think he’s been with us since our very first season 23 years ago,” she said. “He’s just rock solid. He’s a wonderful actor.”
Holm’s Harlequin credits include five “Stardust” musicals, all three productions of “A Rock ’N’ Roll Twelfth Night” and both productions of “Dracula,” plus many others.
“I was watching the show and looking at Russ and thinking, ‘I wonder if he could play Big Daddy,’” Whitney said. “He’s in his 50s now, and the character is actually 65. We talked about it, and he thought it was a great idea.”
“I was surprised and I was pleased,” Holm said. “I was kind of taken aback, but I was really happy. It’s a great role, and it’s a great show.”
Whitney also lined up Harvester and Lamb, who met at the theater while starring in 2009’s “Mating Dance of the Werewolf,” in which Harvester’s werewolf and Lamb’s police detective characters fell in love. Helen Harvester and Aaron Lamb did as well.
“They met here, and they fell in love,” Whitney said. “It became really easy to work with these great actors together in shows. I did ‘Enchanted April,’ where they played a married couple, a few years ago. Last year, they were in ‘The Philadelphia Story’ together and then this show. They are great.”
Lamb especially was excited about the opportunity to play Brick, an aging football hero who drinks too much and avoids intimacy with his hypersexual wife, Maggie.
“Aaron had been offered the role a few years ago, but he had a conflict and he couldn’t do it,” Whitney said. “He had always wanted to do the role.”
Rounding out the major roles are Scott C. Brown (“Sins of the Mother”) as Gooper, Brick’s older brother; Maggie Loftquist (“The Stardust Christmas Blizzard,” “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress”) as Gooper’s wife, Mae; and Rachel Fitzgerald (“As You Like It”) as Big Mama.
“It’s a great group of actors in this show,” Holm said.
And while the show is very much of its time and place (it debuted in 1955), the themes are universal, he said.
“There are moments in this show that do become personal for members of the cast,” Holm said. “There are moments that are personal for me, that bring to mind moments from my life. There’s this family dynamic that’s going on and tensions in this family, and I think everybody deals with that at some point to some degree.”
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
What: Harlequin Productions presents Tennessee Williams’ classic tale of a family dynasty.
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday plus March 12-15, 20-22 and 27-29; matinees at 2 p.m. Sunday plus March 16 and 23
Where: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia
Tickets: $31 for adults, $28 for military and seniors, $20 for students and younger than 25. Discounted rush tickets available a half-hour prior to curtain. For the March 12 performance, pay what you can.
More information: 360-786-0151 or harlequin productions.org