Barring unforeseen circumstances, by the time anyone reads this, the folks at the Keegan Theatre — which is to say, founders Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea — will have come full circle.
Keegan will have settled into its newly and finally renovated theater on Church Street just off Dupont Circle, giving both a climax and new beginning to a story that had its start in the 1990s, when Keegan was a fledgling, nomadic enterprise with a not-always-certain future.
Their 2015-2016 season will have opened with a production of Tennessee Williams’s classic play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” which resonates in American theater history, but also in a highly personal way both for the Rheas, who are co-directing, and the company.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is famous on a larger stage as one of the great playwright’s bigger Broadway hits, and as a gaudy 1958 MGM film starring Elizabeth Taylor at her zenith, as Maggie the Cat in a negligee; Paul Newman as Brick, her boozing, haunted husband; and Burl Ives as the formidable (and dying) Big Daddy. The play won a Pulitzer Prize for Williams. The original 1955 production was directed by Elia Kazan and starred Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie and Ben Gazzara as Brick; a 1974 revival, directed by Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael Kahn, starred Elizabeth Ashley as Maggie and Keir Dullea as Brick, with Fred “Munster” Gwynne as Big Daddy.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was the first play Keegan staged, in 1997-1998. Not only that, but the last time the company took on the play, during its 2001-2002 season, Mark was Brick to Susan Marie’s Maggie the Cat.
“Oh, God, yes,” Susan Marie said. “This production, with all that’s going on, is so special to us. We’re opening the season with a play that began our history. We’re directing actors in roles that we played. All of this while the finishing touches to the renovations are still being done. And, of course, it means something very special on a personal level.”
We’re talking as the smell of fresh wood, long planks of wood on the side of the lobby, still lingers in the new theater.
“We had known each other, and worked together before [in the “The Taming of the Shrew”], but something happened during the course of the ‘Cat’ production,” she said.
“Our relationship deepened,” Mark said. “I mean, this play asks so much of you, you have to really dig deep and expose some parts of yourselves which under normal conditions people might never get to see. We fell in love, deeply.”
“He proposed and, I think perhaps a year later, we were married. We’ve been together ever since,” said Susan Marie.
So part of the story of Keegan — actors falling in love while acting in a searing, emotionally draining play — is a love story. A love story that includes the building of a company, regular tours in Ireland (Galway, County Killarney, Cork), staging plays and making theater in a certain way, with each bringing particular gifts to the process.
Mark, whose background is Irish, has a deep passion for Irish theater, plays and playwrights. “They’re dark and funny, and character driven,” he says.
“We’ve almost always done the Irish tour,” says Susan Marie. “We take American classics — Tennessee Williams, Miller, Mamet, Albee — and bring them to Ireland. In Europe, and for sure in Ireland, that’s what people really want to see and experience — that is, our classic plays — and, of course, many people have seen the ‘filums,’ as they say it.”
In the Washington area, “We’ve been everywhere,” she says. “Arlington, Northern Virginia, in churches and schools. It was something of a vagabond existence, but we built an audience over the years, and we have an audience now.”
The theater on bucolic Church Street, which used to be a private school, has attracted an eclectic set of companies over the years: outliers from the suburbs like the award-rich Synetic Theatre, theaters without homes, and New Playwrights. Keegan had been there off and on until, a year or so ago, in the midst of a full and successful season, the opportunity arose to buy the theater for over $2 million, accomplished with a special fund drive.
Renovation proceeded apace, though not necessarily with ease. Even as the opening approached, there were still things to be done, permits to finalize and agonizing details to finish off. But the new theater, with more open air and glass-enclosed views of the leafy setting — not to mention enough bathrooms for everyone — is a big improvement on the past, without losing the most important thing Keegan offered as a theater environment: intimacy.
“Cat” will run through July 25. Other shows in the 10-play season include a new musical, “Dogfight,” in August; “The Dealer of Ballynafeigh”; “An Irish Carol”; and Green Day’s “American Idiot.”