Tennessee Williams wrote in his "Memoirs" that "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is his favorite play, because it "comes closest to being both a work of art and a work of craft." It is, he said, the only American play that fulfills the Aristotelian standards, with both important themes and unity of time and place.

Williams, normally a harsh self-critic, was not wrong. It is a great play, and the Round House Theatre's current production of it does not flinch from the turbulence that roils within the hot rooms of the Pollit family's southern manse. Although it was first produced in 1955, the play still surprises, catching the humanness of the characters, their grotesqueness and hypocrisy, as the family gathers around the dying hulk of Big Daddy.

The family is rotten with greed and the desire for social position; only the younger son, Brick, seems untouched. Their phony smiles and platitudes are unsuccessful masks for their loathing and cruelty. Although the characters are grandiose and excessive, anyone with a passing acquaintance with the South knows they all have mirror images in real life. Emotionally they are regionless: Sister Woman, all fake smiles and rhinestone jewelry, angling shamelessly to secure the inheritance of the family estate; Big Mama, loud and too heavily made up; Big Daddy, full of Good Ol' Boy crudity and cruelty. For much of the play, Brick appears to be above it all, drowning his "disgust" in drink. But he is no more honorable than the others, merely less obvious in his manipulations.

The play is often thought of as belonging to Maggie the Cat, Brick's beautiful and sexually frustrated wife. But, as director David Cromwell has correctly seen, the play belongs as much to Big Daddy's death struggle as it does to the stifled sexuality of Maggie. The first act is hers, as she reveals her estrangement from her husband, who has agreed to live with her as long as they do not sleep together. The second act is Big Daddy's, exultant after being told he is not going to die from cancer. The third act brings them all together -- not in love or sorrow, but in failure.

Cromwell has orchestrated these big instruments with delicacy and sensitivity. The small touches that add texture are there -- like Maggie wiping spit off the telephone after taking it from Big Mama, or the sneaky smile of pleasure on Big Daddy's face after he withers Sister Woman with an insult. The choice of jazz as a counterpoint to the action on stage, however, is jarring and inappropriate, particularly in the last scene.

One disadvantage that a small theater like the Round House has is the difficulty of finding actors in a wide age range; thus this production suffers from having a Maggie who seems older than Brick, and a Big Daddy similarly out of synch with Big Mama.But most of the performances are good. Dion Anderson is a vital, harsh Big Daddy, fortuitously shedding the Burl Ives-Colonel Sanders cliche that actors too often bring to the role. Greta Lambert's Maggie has both the southern co-quettishness and the hard-scrabble drive, although she's short on sensuality. Alessandro Cima, an undergraduate at Catholic University, is a strong, understated Brick, echoing the patterns of self-absorbed cruelty set by his father. Only June Hansen's Big Mama strikes a false note; she has not overcome a strong British accent and her characterization is too broad to do justice to the pain of a wounded woman.

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, by Tennessee Williams; directed by David Cromwell; music by Chris Patton; sets by Richard H. Young; costumes by Lilian Mikiver. With Greta Lambert, Alessandro Cima, Sarah Marshall, June Hansen, Dion Anderson, Gerry Paone, Michael Littman, Mark Jaster, Mike Howell, Jason Green, Natash Klauss, Tom Doerr and Jessica Hartog.

At the Round House Theatre through Oct. 24.