WHEN THE BEST performance in a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof comes from Mae, something is seriously off-kilter. Julie Brokaw's supporting work as the seething Sister Woman in Theater Schmeater's presentation is smart and sugary (and well-matched by Wayne Rawley's understated Gooper) but should in no way be the highlight in a staging of Tennessee Williams' classic Southern drama of decaying love. This fringe production sinks Williams' extravagant grace in bombastics and miscasting.

Dawn Box as Maggie, the metaphorical cat trying to scratch her way back into the heart and bed of husband Brick (Tim Kniffin), is just not the right actress for the role. She does some thoughtful work but her exclamatory sexual frustrations make her seem more like Mae's id than the sinuous, furtive tiger she's meant to be. She's further done in by Kniffin's Brick, whose staccato delivery and syrupy tones play like a parody of Paul Newman's famous turn in the movie version. Together they fail to emit the necessary sexual heat of Williams' desperate beauties. The other major player, Jim Dean as the dying, raging patriarch Big Daddy, is fine but without enough gravity.

Director Susanna Wilson has shamefully ignored the fact that Schmeater's space is unforgivingly intimate. With the exception of the aforementioned Brokaw and Rawley, all of the actors engage in the howling, mad-eyed gesticulations of a lowbrow farce. This pushes the proceedings dangerously close to camp, especially when Annie Lareau shows up as Big Mama in spray-on old age garb, flapping and squawking in the hopes that we won't notice she's at least 30 years too young for the part. Wilson also never gets a handle on the play's corrosive fluidity, making the sweaty theatrics seem random and disconnected. Though there's finally some composure in Act III (with even Lareau providing some nice, sorrowful moments), it feels as if the production has stripped away its only layer, leaving us to wonder what all the fuss was about.