This week Playbill catches up with two-time Tony nominee Alison Fraser, cast as Big Mama in Ruth Stage's production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which begins previews July 15 prior to an official opening July 24 at The Theater at St. Clements. Directed by Joe Rosario, the production is the first mounting of the classic drama that the Williams estate has allowed to be produced Off-Broadway. The company also includes Sonoya Mizuno, Matt de Rogatis, Christian Jules Le Blanc, Spencer Scott, Tiffan Borelli, Jim Kempner, Milton Elliott, and Carly Gold.
Fraser was Tony-nominated for her performances in The Secret Garden and Romance/Romance, and her other Broadway credits include Tartuffe, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and Gypsy. Off-Broadway the multitalented artist created the roles of Sharon in Squeamish (Off-Broadway Alliance, Outer Critics Circle Awards nominations), Nancy Reagan and Betty Ford in First Daughter Suite (Lucille Lortel and Drama Desk nominations), Arsinoé in The School for Lies, Sister Walburga in The Divine Sister, Trina in March of the Falsettos and In Trousers, and the Matron in the world premiere of Williams’ In Masks Outrageous and Austere. Among Fraser's numerous screen credits are It Cuts Deep, Impossible Monsters, The Sound of Silence, Gotham, Family Games, Happy!, Blowtorch, High Maintenance, Understudies, Happyish, It Could Be Worse, Jack in a Box, Commentary, In the Blood, The L Word, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Between the Lions.
What is your typical day like now?
I have a pretty structured schedule right now because I am deep in the thick of the Mississippi Delta these days, playing Big Mama in Ruth Stage’s Off-Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at St. Clement’s. Before I turn into Big Mama though, I have my Brooklyn duties—getting up at seven to have breakfast with my partner Steve, give him the lunch I pack for him every day, read the New York Times, watch a little Morning Joe, give the cats their breakfast, tidy up, do some paperwork, perhaps do a self tape or voiceover audition in my home studio, and go over music I will be singing in the future. Then I go over all my Big Mama lines with my bedraggled script sitting on my beautiful antique brass music stand, and hopefully I don’t have ever to refer to it. Then I take the subway (masked) to St. Clement’s and deep dive into this classic Tennessee Williams drama, which is directed by the visionary Joe Rosario.
I don’t think there has ever been a sexier Maggie/Brick coupling than the absolutely stunning Sonoya Mizuno and the brooding heartthrob Matt de Rogatis. Brace yourselves, this particular delta is mighty steamy! There might be teddies and tattoos involved…Then, Steve picks me up, we take the subway (masked) back to Brooklyn, and we talk and unwind, go to sleep, then it all starts over again. I like the limbo of an intense tech period—it requires absolute commitment and concentration, and moves forward so fast every day to the first public performance. It is a rush.
Is this a role you have wanted to play? How are you approaching your portrayal of Big Mama?
I never envisioned myself as a Big Mama, but I am certainly a big Tennessee Williams fan. I was introduced to him early on, choosing—unwisely, in retrospect—Blanche Du Bois’ “He was a boy, just a boy, and I was a very young girl...” speech from A Streetcar Named Desire for my dramatic interpretation performance in Natick High School’s Competitive Speech Club state finals. Needless to say, I did not go home with trophies, but I was hooked, and later got to be involved with very interesting Tennessee Williams projects. I did Dirty Shorts, a pair of erotic TW short stories with Michael Urie and directed by David Kaplan, the head of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival. I had given David a copy of my first album, New York Romance, and he contacted me and said he needed a peculiarly versatile singer for a show he wanted to do. It turned out to be Tennessee Williams: Words and Music, and he thought I would be a good fit. It’s a compilation of American Songbook songs TW always included in his various plays (Cat's “Show Me the Way to Go Home," for example) and pieces of text from various plays that all meshed into an extraordinary theatrical journey. Once the jaw-droppingly talented Allison Leyton-Brown was on board as the musical director, arranger, and onstage pianist—backed by our great seven-piece band, “The Gentleman Callers”—the show became magical. We recorded it in New Orleans, and it’s available on Ghostlight Records. And, it’s great. Then I worked with Shirley Knight, one of Tennessee Williams’ muses, in the world premiere of TW’s last play, In Masks Outrageous and Austere, which was a wild Off-Broadway production that got better and better and wilder and wilder as the weeks went on. Dangerous, lyrical, thrilling theatre.
I was approached by Matt de Rogatis about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof about two years ago and met with him and Joe Rosario, who told me about his unique concept for the Pollitts. He wanted them to be attractive, sexually viable, very nouveau riche and entitled. As I recall, one of the terms he used was “Kardashian.” And, that was something that really appealed to me. It’s right in the text that these two were sleeping with each other up to the time he started getting sick with terminal colon cancer. I lived with a man with colon cancer, my late husband Rusty Magee, and as I read the script, I felt I really understood the mercurial moods these two people in health trauma were experiencing due to physical reactions to treatment or emotional distress. I do believe there is real love and was real passion between them, and the fact that they stayed together over 40 years attests to this. But sickness, in addition to alcoholism in the family, foments major tension in a household. Once I met my Big Daddy, the glorious, utterly charming, smart as a whip New Orleans native Christian Le Blanc on Zoom, Big Mama fell utterly in love. And, when we finally got together? The more he rages against the storm, the more Big Mama loves him, and will fiercely protect him. Till death do they part.
Are there any parts of the role or the play that seem particularly poignant/relevant following the events of the past two years?
Being in a room with a director like Joe, who takes charge but encourages independent thinking, is a great gift. I have not been on stage for a long time. I have turned down many auditions and at least two show offers because of the three COVID postponements of Cat to keep myself open for what I thought would be a really exciting production. It was frustrating, but I just had this deep feeling that this was what I was supposed to be doing. And, once the cast was together in person on the stage at St. Clement’s, it felt like coming home. I think I have already addressed my personal connection with Big Mama dealing with the husband and son’s health issues, but I also feel that there is very much a feminist bent to her. In addition to running the mansion’s household as she has done for 40 years, for the past three years of Big Daddy’s decline, she has also successfully run the estate’s business. She sits by alternately bemused and annoyed when the two sons and their wives discuss which son should get the bulk of the estate. Well, according to my dear friend Mississippi State Senator (and esteemed estate lawyer) Hob Bryan, in Mississippi estate law, in this particular case, the spouse has the right to live in the house with an adjoining 160 acres (called “exempt property”) for the rest of her life, and splits the business three ways with her two sons. She also gets a lump cash sum aside from this that goes solely to her, the amount of which is determined by the value of the estate, which, in Big Daddy’s case, is very large. If the boys misbehave, she also has the right to go to court to renounce either or both of the boys from their share of the estate.
Her share cannot be written out of the will, no matter how obstreperous her sick husband gets. She has no fear of the lawyer, who may or may not be coming to the house in the morning—her main concern is for her husband’s relative well-being in the face of his illness, and her son Brick’s future. I found this all fascinating, and realized it greatly impacted Big Mama’s way of dealing with the family squabbles. Female strength is a powerful tool, in a pandemic world and in a Tennessee Williams world.
You played Tessie in the last Broadway revival of Gypsy. I was wondering if you had any memories of Stephen Sondheim from that production that you could share.
I remember being in the music studio with Mr. Sondheim when we were recording Gypsy, and he gave me a note for my verse of “Gimmick.” I was very nervous about implementing it correctly, but apparently I did because it was the last I heard of it. I also have a very vivid memory of him at Arthur Laurents’ private memorial service in Quogue. I had driven out with Shirley Knight—she and I had met each other and had become great friends doing Arthur’s last play, Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are at David Saint’s George Street Playhouse. Mr. Sondheim sat directly in front of us, and as I was looking at the back of his head, I had the strong feeling of "This is it. He is the last of a generation of artistic geniuses. We shall never see the likes of him and Arthur again. How privileged I am to have worked with them both."
During this time of reflection and re-education regarding BIPOC artists and artistry, particularly in the theatre, what do you want people (those in power, fellow artists, audiences) to be aware of? What do you want them to consider further?
To the BIPOC artists of our community and beyond: You are recognized, you are respected, you are indispensable, you are appreciated, you are to be seen, and you are to be heard. To everyone else, please read above and act accordingly. Our theatre world is monumentally richer because of our BIPOC comrades.
What, if anything, did you learn about yourself during the past two years that you didn't already know?
I can build a slate patio with my partner Steve, I can prepare three healthy meals a day, I can keep our pantry full of dried beans and rice so we will never starve even if we are locked inside for months due to COVID. I am never ever bored, I love my new home in Brooklyn, and again with Steve’s help, I can bury our beloved cat Pip (who I found lifeless on the kitchen floor at 7 AM) and have a little funeral for him in the backyard before the house guests get up for breakfast, I can manage contractors through several major renovations, I can stay happy in dire times, I can learn how to Zoom and adapt my class so I can teach my Fordham students despite the fact that they might be in India or Mexico, I can record pro level VO audition and audio recordings from home (including the terrific musical podcast The Laundronauts, featuring Ed Asner and John Cameron Mitchell; Blake Allen’s brilliant opera The Shards of An Honor Code, which has been streamed over three million times; and the super fun Skivvies’ Rocky Horror Picture Show). Speaking of the Skivvies, who I love, Tom Hewitt and I got like the best reviews of our lives for the Rocky Horror Picture Show Halloween concert at Joe’s Pub just for being brave enough at our advanced age to strip down to skivvies to sing our rock songs. I can watch my son Nat get married to lovely Jessie and not cry until after the pro pictures are taken. I also found out things I am not good at—specifically, I am much better at in-person auditions than self-tapes!
Do you have any other stage or screen projects in the works?
Oh Lord, something is always cooking, but if I talk about it, I will jinx it. Beware hubris! I can talk about a nice part in a film I did last fall called Can’t Let It Go, which should be coming out soon. I get to smoke and be very French and wear marabou feathers. What more could an actress ask for?
What organization would you recommend people learn more about or donate to during this time of change?
During the pandemic, when theatre was hurting so hard, Steve and I gave money to several smaller theatres. Any amount is really appreciated in a little theatre's budget, so we will continue to do so, and I encourage those who can to do the same. I also recommend Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, ASPCA, ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, The Actors Fund, The 52nd Street Project, Julie Halston’s fabulous, annual Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation gala, and one I am personally involved with, The Single Parent Resource Center, which provides emotional support and educational resources to parents who are raising children alone due to death, divorce, incarceration, transitional living situation, or substance abuse.