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There’s style to spare in the Keegan Theatre’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—apt costuming, blue-moody lighting, languid language rolling lazily off reasonably Southern-accented lips, a handsomely rehabbed Church Street playhouse to contain Big Daddy’s Mississippi plantation—but the humidity you want in a production of Tennessee Williams’ long, oppressive night of bickering and bad news is missing. There’s too much fresh air in those big, high-ceilinged rooms, so no matter how many times the servants say it, there’s no real sense that a storm’s coming.
First, a few words about that playhouse: For decades, the Church Street Theater was a go-to space for small companies that wanted to reach an adventurous audience. David Drake’s The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me played there years and years ago, long before the Source went dark and was revived as an affordable venue for small troupes. So did provocations from Sartre’s No Exit (courtesy of WSC Avant Bard, then called the Washington Shakespeare Company) to Party, a Chicago-born excuse for an all-male cast to get naked and attract sell-out gay crowds. Synetic Theater did eye-popping early work there; I vaguely recall a staging of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 from one tiny company or another. If you wanted to put on a show with some edge, Church Street was a safe-ish space in which to take a risk: intimate, well-situated, and not too insanely expensive to rent.
So the house has been a priceless proving ground for D.C.’s small theater companies, and the Keegan crew was another beneficiary. They’ve produced everything from modern Irish two-handers to surprisingly sprawling musicals in the former girls’-school gymnasium. In the process, they’ve found both a professional groove and a permanent home: The Church Street Theater, as of this month, has become the Keegan Theatre. The company, somewhat miraculously, pulled together $4 million-plus to buy and renovate the building. And their inaugural season in the overhauled building promises an extraordinarily ambitious 10 productions. Once a scrappy shoestring sort of company, Keegan is officially one of the big kids now.
That, in some ways, makes the straightforward approach to Cat a little disappointing. Co-directors Mark and Susan Rhea, who jointly run the artistic operations of the company, aren’t digging for revelations here; instead they’ve steered their cast toward naturalistic performances that highlight the personalities and relationships powering Williams’ story. That tale—of an estranged couple jockeying to maintain Most Favored Nation status in a clan shadowed by its patriarch’s terminal illness, of carnality frustrated and queerness repressed and all manner of appetites starved—still builds to something like intensity, but the proceedings too often feel cautious, merely respectful, more like the work of a company feeling its way into a niche than that of one triumphantly turning the key on a new palace. Maggie the Cat paces sure-footedly enough on that metaphorical roof, but it’ll take one of those other nine shows coming down the pike to make audiences feel like there’s anything really at risk.
1742 Church St. NW. $25–$36. (202) 265-3767. keegantheatre.com.