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Tension as constricting as a winding sheet, disgust as palpable as fog: In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, they permeate the rooms of Big Daddy Pollitt’s plantation house like the crackling, ozone-charged humidity that precedes a thunderstorm.

Tennessee Williams’ classic is as overheated as it is overwritten, and its notions of masculinity and family are as twisted and troubling as the playwright’s own early ideas about his sexual orientation. But it’s a stubbornly impressive, richly poetic mess, unruly in its yearnings, cathartic in its anger, seductive in its passions, and still, for all its datedness, somehow moving.

I’m glad to have seen this first effort from the newly constituted Keegan Theatre, if only because I forget between productions how much I like Brian Hemmingsen, whose crass, cruel, crumbling wreck of a Big Daddy is most of what makes this Cat bristle. For such a big man, Hemmingsen is awfully good at the little gestures (the angle of the cigar, the curl of the lip, the tilt of the head) that not only define but amplify a character. As the cancer-stricken patriarch of Williams’ madly dysfunctional Mississippi clan, he’s a sad, sordid, splendid thing to watch.

All too often, Big Daddy comes off as a cartoon of a character, all foul language and masculine bluster. Hemmingsen lets audiences see the man’s fear, his regret, and most importantly, his awkward tenderness, especially for his favorite son, Brick, a tormented alcoholic and faded football star, played here with a glassy-eyed, hypnotic reserve by Mark Rhea, who also co-directs.

His ankle broken in a drunken accident, Brick is a willing prisoner in an upstairs bedroom in Big Daddy’s sprawling house (stylishly evoked by Eric and George Lucas’ airy, vaguely surrealist set). With him is his wife Margaret (Nanna Ingvarsson), though as she puts it, they “don’t live together; we occupy the same cage.” Maggie is a “hard, frantic, cruel” woman, but not altogether bad. She’s hemmed in by her instinct for self-preservation, her need for Brick’s unavailable affection, and his festering resentment over a betrayal involving his closest friend. Brick’s refusal to sleep with his frustrated wife is central to the play’s plot, a cause and an effect of its melodrama; it’s what makes her feel “like a cat on a hot tin roof.”

Taking advantage of the tension—and of Brick and Maggie’s childlessness—are Brick’s efficient nebbish of a brother, Gooper (Daniel Lyons), and his grasping shrew of a wife, Mae (primly nasty Amy McWilliams), neither of whom is too scrupulous to employ their five screaming kids in their scheme to get their hands on Big Daddy’s estate. Bewildered, matronly Big Mama (newcomer Judith Knight Young in a warmly human performance) watches it all without comprehending much, which makes it all the more painful when she finds herself a target of Big Daddy’s anger.

The meat of the play comes in the second act, in a confrontation/conversation between Big Daddy and Brick, whose drinking stems from his conflicted longing for his dead best friend, Skipper, who may or may not have been his lover as well (it all depends on your reading of Brick’s denials). For all his hardheaded, hard-knock pragmatism, Big Daddy cares too much to let Brick drown himself in bourbon—and he proves startlingly open-minded about the maybes of Brick and Skipper’s friendship.

This is where Hemmingsen and Rhea both do their best work; the first act consists primarily of a frantically neurotic monologue for Maggie (which Ingvarsson pulls off with a minimum of excess mannerism, though her accent, to this Southerner’s ear, is extremely suspect), while the third, in which Gooper’s grand plan is made manifest and Big Mama and Big Daddy finally learn the truth about his medical prospects, is largely a yawn.

But the central section is beautifully constructed, more intimate and connected than any other part of the play, and realized here with compassion and finesse. In an ideal production, Rhea might be a little less opaque; in the meantime, he’s no small part of his company’s entirely respectable debut.CP