There’s a lot of what my mama used to call “fussin’” in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and a lot of it in Freedomland, too. It’s uproariously funny in the latter, a relatively new domestic dramedy from Amy Freed, and it can be awfully funny in Tennessee Williams’ grand old hothouse drama, but when Maggie and Brick and Big Daddy get laughs it’s often because somebody’s chewing too hard on the scenery. Not so at Arena Stage, where Molly Smith’s directorial debut signals that she’s not a bit timid about taking a slightly skewed look at an American classic.

Intrigued by the idea of family life as a kind of take-no-prisoners combat, Arena’s new artistic director, with designer Pavel Dobrusky, re-imagines the Pollitt plantation house as a boxing ring, a squared circle set in the pit at the center of the Fichandler’s arena-like space. Balcony railings resemble ring ropes, and at least one actor climbs over them at one point; the evening begins with two of its principals quite literally squared off, like pugilists, in opposite corners.

Glass blocks provide an architectural cue to the play’s era (the ’50s), but great Palladian windows over French doors at the playing area’s extreme corners are nods to its mind-set, rooted in a slightly older South. Class consciousness and dynastic struggle are among the issues at play, but Cat on a Hot Tin Roof remains also a scathing exposé of the idea that family matters most in Southern clans: Big Daddy’s and Maggie’s efforts to reach Brick notwithstanding, every man is an island here, and every woman, too.

What makes that more tragic than troubling in this poised and affecting production is the remarkable way Smith and her cast have buffed some of the hard edges off the characters. Big Daddy, the blunt patriarch who believes, wrongly, that he’s dodged a cancer bullet, is still a mean old snake, but Dion Anderson uncovers real empathy and a kind of desperate, stunted humanity in the old man’s rough efforts at connecting with his self-destructive drunk of a son. Maggie, married to that same drunk but childless because he’s grown to hate her, is still the hard, frantic woman the script describes, but Megan Gallagher finds a core of genuine emotional need in her pleas for Brick’s attention; she’s far more interesting once the veneer cracks. Brick’s levelheaded lawyer brother and grasping sister-in-law are more than greedy caricatures, too, in the hands of Lawrence Redmond and Sarah Marshall, and Rosemary Knower makes Big Mama a bit more than the bossy Southern-matron stereotype Williams wrote. Even Brick himself—bourbon-soaked former football god, mourning a dead friend and wrestling with his own sexuality—seems more understandable behind that remote mask, if only because Peter Hermann lets it slip every now and then to show the hurt that informs his inarticulate fury.

“Inarticulate,” of course, is a relative term in a Williams script. Language is at once one of the play’s virtues and one of its oddities; lovely and lyrical and wildly unlikely, the rich poetry these characters speak in is anything but everyday, and when a cast handles it as surely as Smith’s does, it adds weight and epic dimension to the story.

The play’s humor and style, on the other hand, come from Smith’s intriguing casting and directing that’s not above a sly queer reference or two. Hermann’s Brick is no beefy, clueless ’50s hunk; he’s a chiseled, ’90s ideal of masculine beauty, a Calvin Klein hardbody in white silk pajamas, and when his wife won’t leave him alone he’s narcissist and sensualist enough to distract himself with the feel of a cold bourbon glass against his perfectly sculpted abdominals. Gallagher, trying to break through that arrogant reserve, taunts him with the kind of voluptuous, outsized, ultrafeminine sexuality that wouldn’t be out of place in a drag queen—which, seeing as how she’s trying to seduce a man who may have been suppressing his sexuality for a decade or so, makes a kind of twisted sense. Here’s hoping everything Smith does for Arena shows the same combination of serious intelligence and irreverent smarts.

There’s also plenty of both those characteristics in Woolly Mammoth’s Freedomland, wherein a successful painter of wistful clowns lists her inspirations as including “the Eisenhower years” and “the great Walter Keane.” Anyone who doesn’t recognize the latter as creator of those terrifying children with the giant brown eyes isn’t going to find a hint in Amy Freed’s script, which races right on to wrestle with Freud, ancient Greek literature, and the American militia movement. Directed with whipsaw timing by Howard Shalwitz, it’s a rousing riot, screamingly funny and bracingly intelligent—and still not quite as meaningful as it seems to want to be.

Freed’s clan, like Williams’, is a mess, and its dad clearly doesn’t have the answers his three wayward children are looking for: “Go ahead,” says Noah (John Dow), “intoxicate yourself for a few more years with the illusion that things matter.” Noah, daughters Polly (Deb Gottesman) and Sigrid (Kimberly Schraf), and son Seth (Christopher Lane) are wrestling with existential questions as weighty as those being juggled across 14th Street at Studio’s Waiting for Godot, and the trouble, as Freed seems to see it, is that they’re in exactly the opposite situation: Their lives are chock-full of events, but their relationships are so tattered they’ve got no one to lean on.

Again, casting is a major coup here; Freedomland may well come to be remembered as the apotheosis of Nancy Robinette, who had the opening-night audience in convulsions as Noah’s second wife Claude, a therapist who knows none of the traditional boundaries. Gottesman, too, provokes hysterics with just a double-take or a deer-in-the-headlights look as a scholar whose dissertation on the women of the Iliad is “gestating—I just have to crawl into a corner and give birth to it.” Rhea Seehorn, giving an inspirationally freaky performance as Seth’s eerily charismatic girlfriend Lori, is nothing short of a lank-haired, slow-talking marvel, and Jason Gilbert contributes measurably to the mad-hatter atmosphere at Freed’s tea party as Titus, an arts journalist with eventual Oedipal conflicts. (And he proves, along with Schraf and costume designers Jane Schloss Phelan and Lynn Steinmetz, that brown really is the new black.)

Freed, for all her inventiveness and caustic wit, is the weak link; Freedomland wants to be an allegory about an insufficiently nurturing society, or a critique of ’60s individualist ideals, or maybe something else entirely; it doesn’t quite succeed in being much more than a brilliant, breathless comedy with some intriguing undertones. When it’s as fresh and funny as Woolly makes it, though, comedy comes close to being enough.CP