On Stage: Dysfunction at its Best

by Chuck Conconi

Keegan Theatre’s ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ portraying the death of a family is an experience to savor.

Brianna Letourneau & Kevin Hasser in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.' (Photo by C. Stanley Photography)

Brianna Letourneau & Kevin Hasser in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.’ (Photo by C. Stanley Photography)

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is much more than a sultry, sexually unsatisfied Maggie the Cat. Tennessee William’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is a combination of repressed homosexuality, family disintegration, greed and mendacity – raw emotions that are effectively and uncomfortably projected in the present Keegan Theatre production.

Directed by husband and wife, Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea, to inaugurate the Keegan’s revived space, it sharply focuses on a family that redefines the word dysfunctional. Brianna Letourneau is the frustrated Maggie the Cat, desperate to get her taciturn husband Brick (Kevin Hasser) into bed to produce the grandchild that his parents, Big Daddy and Big Mama are demanding.

Big Mama haplessly avoids the truth about her alcoholic son’s indifference to his wife. She wants to believe it is Maggie’s fault. In one scene in Maggie and Brick’s bedroom she slaps her hand on their bed and says, “When a marriage goes on the rocks, the rocks are there, right there.”

Linda High’s Big Mamma, is a performance to behold. She wants to believe that Big Daddy is immortal and valiantly is losing a battle against the reality of Big Daddy’s disappointment and lost love for her, as well as facing the truth of his imminent death. She senses the disintegration of her family without his forcefulness. High is so painfully feckless that you want to weep with her.

Appropriately, the three act, more than three hour production takes place in Brick and Maggie’s bedroom that scenic designer Matthew Keenan has created in monochromatic shades of white and off-white, with a plantation house gallery on three sides for the players to enter and exit.

His set evokes a palpable Mississippi humidity and disintegration on this day of Big Daddy’s 65th birthday, a day he and Big Mamma have a double reason to celebrate. They have been told he is free of the cancer they had feared. That is more mendacity: he has terminal cancer.

Big Daddy, Kevin Adams, is a rich, controlling and dominating figure who has built an immense wealth on his 28,000-acre cotton plantation. Adam’s Big Daddy is controlled, making his character more sympathetic, but it also needs more bombast for the undereducated man who boasts of building his empire from being the plantation’s overseer.

Both Big Daddy and Big Mamma are looking toward Brick to someday take over the plantation. He was once a star athlete and broke his leg the previous night attempting to run hurdles on the high school track while drunk. Brick ignores his wife’s attempts to get him to deal with the death of his best friend, Skipper, who was a homosexual. Brick drinks because he believes he caused Skipper’s death by being unwilling to face the reality of their relationship and his own possible homosexuality.

Another outstanding performance is Kerri Rambow as Mae, the fertile wife of Brick’s unloved brother Gooper. Mae has produced five children and has another on the way. She is angrily determined to see to it that Gooper (Colin Smith) inherits Big Daddy’s vast plantation since the alcoholic Brick cares too much about his whiskey to take over.

Rambow’s performance sets a new standard of being annoying and hateful. She has produced family heirs and will continue to in spite of her weak-willed husband. And she is not going to give up. You may not like Mae, but you have to admire the ugly emotions Rambow evokes.

Keenan’s impressive, functional set in what is now a gem of a theater space, supported by Michael Innocenti’s lighting design and Tony Angelini’s sound design, establishes the effect of a dying family, choking on unresolvable greed and mendacity. While this production could benefit from better pacing, it is, nonetheless, an experience to savor.

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” continues through August 1 at Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church Street, NW. Tickets are $25-$36 and available at 202-265-3767 or online here


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