There's a moment in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" when Big Daddy, the patriarch of a wealthy but miserable southern family, says that he has felt like a clenched fist. Finally, he says, he has relaxed his fingers and feels a new sense of freedom.
He's still lying to himself at that point in the play, but his description of himself applies to all the main characters in the Tennessee Williams classic. They have kept themselves tightly wound in cocoons of pretense -- "mendacity" is the word that Big Daddy's son Brick uses to describe it -- and there's a palpable sense of release and relief when they break free.
It's an amazing piece of writing, a classic of American literature, and it gets a strong production from Two Chairs Theatre. It opened Thursday and continues through next weekend at the Players Theatre in Sarasota.
The production's impressive even for people who know the play well, thanks to some excellent acting in exceedingly difficult roles. Kathryn Parks as Maggie, the de facto title character, has to carry the long first act almost single-handedly, and she does so with the menace, restraint and sexiness the role demands.
Rafael Petlock as Brick doesn't have a chance to say too much during that first act, but his character takes over in act two. (There are three, in a play that runs about two and half hours.) Petlock is riveting in a role that's probably as demanding physically as it is emotionally. Brick, who through the entire play is trying unsuccessfully to get drunk, has to hobble around on a crutch the entire time, and he falls a lot. Petlock's physical work is all very credible, and his performance is every bit as charismatic as Parks'.
The other standout performance comes from Lynne Doyle as Big Mama, the brassy but frail wife of Big Daddy. Doyle manages to be both unpleasant and sympathetic, and the character wouldn't work if she couldn't pull that off.
Some of the other performances are inconsistent, but almost everyone in the cast had great moments. On opening night, Allen Kretschmar as Big Daddy seemed tentative at first, but his performance became more dynamic toward the play's end.
Two Chairs founder Elliott Raines is the director. He also directed the only previous Two Chairs show, "The Glass Menagerie." He offers a straightforward vision of this play, which fits in with his company's mission of celebrating classic American dramas, but his direction is sure-handed direction, with fluid movement and crisp timing.
Costume designer Ross Boehringer -- who also plays Gooper -- has created evocative wardrobe for the large cast. William Narrs' set design is simple, attractive and wide open. The lighting design, though, feels a little haphazard. It doesn't enhance the play, but it certainly doesn't do any damage to this strong production.
A lot of people consider "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" to be Tennessee Williams' finest play. Williams himself tinkered with it constantly -- this version is one he reworked even after he won a Pulitzer Prize for a previous version -- and its resolution still feels a bit abrupt and tidy. "The Glass Menagrie" is more complex, atmospheric and poetic, but even if "Cat" is only Williams' second-best play, it's better than any play almost anyone else has ever written.
Details: Through Sept. 13, The Players Theatre, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 7:30 p.m. June Tuesday-Saturday , 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $25-$30. Information: 941-365-2494, theplayers.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.