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How do you define a labor of love? One definition might be staging a long, difficult, talky, Pulitzer Prize-winning war horse of an American drama in the basement of a Methodist church for an audience slightly smaller than your cast.

The Keegan Theatre’s ambitious, diligent, and affecting—if occasionally uneven—production of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a labor of love. It won’t show you anything new about the classic Mississippi Delta dysfunctional-family fest, but it will remind you how serious and capable, how intent and intense, a small, talented theater company can be. The confining, even claustrophobic, setting for the production makes you feel a bit as if you were part of the awful family Williams has concocted, and magnifies both your loathing of its members and your admiration for their crude strength. Just sitting attentively in your seat, in this theater, you’re practically in the clan’s living room and bedrooms and verandas. Through sheer proximity, you become implicated in their conniving and invested in their future.

Brick (Mark A. Rhea, who also directs the show and the Keegan troupe) is in bad shape. The character’s name suggests that he’s as solid as a brick, and back in his football glory days, no doubt he was. But he’s also about as receptive and affectionate as a brick, especially to his wife, Maggie (Susan Grevengoed), who is as uncomfortable and precarious in a loveless marriage into a loveless group of in-laws as the eponymous cat. A cat would find the one safe exit from such peril, but will Maggie?

Consider the odds. Brick’s a major souse, who’s just broken his ankle attempting a 3 a.m. restoration of his teenage varsity years by trying to jump a track hurdle at his old high school. He lives in a bottle and in the past, and he hasn’t been the same since his exceptionally good friend, teammate, and—mid-’50s-melodrama drum roll, please—possible lover, Skipper, did away with himself.

Brick’s older brother, Gooper (Jim Jorgensen), is a nerdy attorney who’s about as charismatic as his name, and Gooper’s wife, Mae (Charlotte Akin), is demonstrably fertile, having produced five children (Maggie dubs them “no-neck monsters”) with another on the way. Flaunting their procreative talents like a résumé skill set, Gooper and Mae are lobbying as hard as they can, without actually applying tongue to boot, to be named the recipients of the huge plantation home of Big Daddy (Robert Leembruggen), who is dying of cancer. Meanwhile, Big Mamma (Peggy McGrath), who has—in her ditsy but forceful way—become de facto ruler of the place during Big Daddy’s illness, is viciously bumped by him off her throne and, with a fearsome finality, out of his cold, bitter heart. At the periphery of this swampy chess game, played out on Big Daddy’s 60th birthday, are the calculating and servile Rev. Tooker (Stan Shulman) and the upright and appropriately dismayed Doc Baugh (David Cleverly).

As things unfold, Maggie’s mission, if she chooses to accept it, is to get her husband sober, straight, savvy, and in the sack within the evening. In the odd calculus of the dramatic setup, that’s what it will take to keep him, and the family at large, afloat.

The unnatural thing about this kind of naturalistic family drama is that once the characters mutter about their miscommunications—how hard it’s always been to talk to one another—they proceed to blab away incessantly for the next several hours. How does it happen that you’re invited into their home the one night they open all the family sores, instead of the night before or the night after, when they would just be sitting around reading a mystery, playing Monopoly, or painting their nails? Naturalism? Possibly, though—with all due respect to a revered playwright—is it natural for characters to repeat all major metaphors at least three times, lest someone in the mezzanine miss the centrality of one of them? In any case, it’s certainly not a statistical kind of naturalism.

The nice variant in Cat is that Brick is a hostile, mostly mute witness to such noisy goings-on. Particularly as played by Rhea, who emphasizes the stuporous in the character’s melancholy-stuporous equation, Brick is barely cognizant, much less participant. That makes his rare tantrums, musings, and asides all the more memorable. Keegan, which began its life as a company with this play five years ago, has come back to it for at least one good reason: Rhea’s got a real feel for this role, and he’s handsome and inwardly fiery enough to pull it off with a Nick Nolte sort of aplomb. His taciturn physicality is the necessary counterpoint to the chatty transparency of the other characters. Brick’s chief goal in life, he tells Maggie and echoes later to Big Daddy, is to achieve “the click I get in my head” when he’s had enough booze “to make me peaceful.” And just in watching Rhea’s dazed face and body language, the play becomes a long day’s journey into click—a weird sort of suspense, but a gripping one.

Grevengoed’s Maggie is seductive, in the hard, desperate way necessary to the role. Maggie weighs her charms like coins, for to her, that’s what they are. “My face does look strained, but I have kept my figure,” she says. Just what those charms, and Brick’s dormant vitality, can buy is another question. “You can be young without money, Brick,” she warns, “but you can’t be old without it.”

In her realism and candor, she is a reflection of Brick’s father, of whom Maggie says appreciatively, “He is what he is….He hasn’t turned gentleman farmer. He is still a Mississippi redneck.” We can safely vouch further that Big Daddy, once the overseer on these “28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the Valley Nile,” is one of the great stage sumbitches of all time. But for whatever reason, Leembruggen still seems to be settling into this role. For starters, his Mississippi accent, at the beginning of Act 2 one night last weekend, took a brief excursion to Liverpool, with a side trip to Dublin, before returning to the American South. He also, in gaze, mannerism, heft, and cigar, had an uncanny, and unfortunate, resemblance to Archie Bunker in his preliminary interactions. You half-expected him to tell Big Mamma to stifle and to call Gooper a meathead. To be fair, Leembruggen largely righted these wrongs in pretty short order, and his physical handling of the heart-to-heart talk with Brick is exceptional—an affectionate caress of Brick’s head speaks volumes about their ties and the core of love in the center of Big Daddy’s sphere of plate-tectonic, parochial resentments and bile.

McGrath is wonderful as Big Mamma, clearing the air-headedness of the character’s presence to reveal her deep perplexity and sense of betrayal at Big Daddy’s barbarism.

George Lucas’ set design is impressively creative, given the limits of the space. With a few free-standing pillars, period furniture, a ceiling fan, and suggestive cutaway rooms, he’s sketched the sour sprawl of a huge, slightly desiccated home. Lighting designer Dan Martin’s blue twilight is lovely, but why doesn’t he vary it more as nighttime falls? And though Matt Rippetoe’s spare, beat-up bop score is evocative, a greater use of music on the part of Rhea as director would undergird the emotion and better maintain the momentum of these plantation proceedings. Maggie Butler’s period costumes, from Big Mamma’s flamboyant frock dresses and jewelry to Maggie’s slip, are great, helping a cool, crisp D.C. night become a hot, close Delta dusk.

Williams’ play takes a perversely upbeat turn. “I do love you. I do,” Maggie assures Brick. “Wouldn’t it be funny if that were true?” he responds. Which doesn’t mean, mind you, that it isn’t. You sense the proximity of a different sort of click for Brick. And that the Keegan players make that expectation so palpable is the ultimate proof that their labor of love, like Maggie’s straight-up efforts to get Brick off the rocks, is not a love in vain. CP