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BWW Reviews: A Revitalized Theatre Space Opens With a Classic – CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF at Keegan

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While the entry to and lobby of Keegan Theatre's revitalized theatre space on Church Street looks remarkably different, fresh and new, the ambitious company is turning out a true, familiar classic to mark its reentry into the Washington, DC theatre scene. The grand reopening production is, of course, Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea - some names that should be familiar to longtime Keegan theatregoers.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play introduces us to a largely dysfunctional, elite family in the Mississippi Delta in the 1950s. It's Big Daddy's (Kevin Adams) birthday and the entire family has come to together to celebrate the event in their sprawling plantation home on a hot summer night. Only, it's not so much a celebration as an occasion to revisit the wounds of the past and for his children and/or their spouses to clamor to inherit his 20,000 acres of prized land. For you see, Big Daddy is dying of cancer. He's considered terminal, but he doesn't yet know the diagnosis. The doctor, played by Timothy H. Lynch, previously told Big Daddy and Big Mama (Linda High) that the test results came back negative and the only thing that was ailing the larger-than-life patriarch was a spastic colon. The younger generation plans to tell Big Mama and Daddy the truth about Big Daddy's bleak future at the party for their own selfish reasons. Doc Baugh and Revered Tooker, comically played by Richie Montgomery, will be at the home as well, notionally to provide support to Big Daddy and Mama.

Maggie (Brianna Letourneau), the social climbing wife of favored, but troubled alcoholic son Brick (Kevin Hasser), thinks the estate should go to her and her former football star husband - who couldn't care less -instead of his brother Gooper (Colin Smith) and his wife Mae (an appropriately nagging Kerri Rambow). Gooper and Mae now have five "no-neck monsters" as Maggie calls them, with one more on the way. Mae's contention is that she and Gooper are in more need of inheriting the plantation than the childless couple because they have a growing family as well as a more stable marriage (Mae's snooping at what goes on in the bedroom next door to her and Gooper's clues her into their troubles). Gooper agrees with Mae's rationale and stresses that he's the son that's provided Big Daddy assistance with the plantation business.

Apart from the infighting over inheritances, other conflicts are brewing inside the home. There's the central conflict between Maggie and Brick over past infidelities, his drinking since the death of his friend Skipper, and the general state of and foundation for the relationship, and their future. There's the conflict between Maggie and Mae over personal life choices, and the conflict between Big Daddy and Big Mama. Finally (and perhaps most crucially), there's the conflict between Brick and Big Daddy, which highlights broader questions of identity and expectations within the family. What happens when all of these conflicts come to the forefront? Suffice it to say, it's stormy inside and outside. Williams' play is the quintessential family drama about what happens when secrets are no longer secrets, and the impact of changes in the family on the balance of the whole unit.

Unfortunately, at Keegan, all of these conflicts come to a forefront at such a plodding pace, that it's quite difficult for the audience - or at least this audience member - to become emotionally-involved in the plight of each character and care how the situation resolves itself (or doesn't). Though the strength of the writing and Williams' knack for character development is clear throughout, the overlong production only offers some moments of raw and believable interplay between family members that prove emotionally satisfying and gripping. The most satisfying of these comes in the second act when Brick and Big Daddy have the "discussion" Brick doesn't want to have. Hasser and Adams do well to establish the vast difference in how their two characters respond to a difficult situation. Adams, portraying the dominant and brash patriarch, treats Hasser as a target of an emotional - and at times physical - outlash. Even in the quiet moments, it's easy to feel his intensity. Hasser, at this moment, is also hugely effective in portraying Brick as a man who finds solace only in alcohol and is more than happy to detach himself from any and all situations. Although the act plods along, one can at least revel in the fine and believable acting and lovely writing.

Other acting standouts also emerge. Letourneau plays up Maggie's desperation, drive, and emotionally precarious state quite well. She handles her numerous monologues with aplomb, effectively leveraging one of the more consistent Southern accents featured in the production. Ms. Letourneau also captures Maggie's inner-conflict with some nuance. She's refined yet outspoken with family members and is always trying to prove that she belongs, but inside she's more than a little bit of a mess. Fancy clothes (Erin Nugent) can't change who she really is and where she comes from. She demonstrates significant confidence, but really has none. Letourneau's Maggie is definitely not one-note.

Linda High, likewise, shows off her acting range as Big Mama. Although she has a tendency to tread into campy acting territory a bit too much for my taste - although it's recognized this could be a directorial choice - she is more than able to handle the ups-and-downs of Big Mama's night. Adept with comedy and adept at trying to hide emotion when the cracks in her marriage with Big Daddy shine through, she has moments of brilliance. It's only when negative emotions arise that we run into trouble.

Technically, the creative team goes for a minimal approach and chooses to let the fine writing speak for itself. Matthew Keenan's set does what it needs to do to depict Maggie and Brick's bedroom and its access to the crucial outdoor decks. Columns on the exterior remind us of the house's grandeur. Michael Innocenti's lighting design and Tony Angelini's sound design are subtle, and complement the telling of the story. A nice feature of this production is the inclusion of gospel hymns, effectively sung by Jade Jones - one of DC's newest and most memorable musical theatre performers - and Ian Anthony Coleman who play servants to the affluent family. The music moments at the beginning and end of the show are particularly effective in creating the mood, while reinforcing the time and space in which the story takes place.

Missteps aside, it's good to see Keegan back in action, and I look forward to what it offers next at their lovely intimate theatre space.

Running Time: 3 Hours, 20 Minutes, including two intermissions.

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF runs through July 25, 2014 at Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church Street in Washington, DC. Tickets can be purchased online.

Graphic: Courtesy of Keegan Theatre website.


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