Perhaps Mr. Albee's most famous play, it seems appropriate to be writing this review the day after the most famous actress to play the lead role of Martha has died. Whether that is fair to the astounding production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that Steppenwolf Theatre Company has brought to Arena Stage is debatable. However, even The Thespian took note during the performance she attended last week that the specter of Elizabeth Taylor hovered in the audience's mind. One way to gage your audience's reaction is to observe and listen during intermission. Virginia Woolf? has two intermissions. During the first intermission the topics discussed by audience members around me were about the film version of the play. "I remember Elizabeth Taylor's Martha." "Who played Nick? (George Segal)" And most telling to me, "I don't remember the language being that nasty."
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was written just about 50 years ago. It is a portrait of two married couples, George and Martha, a history professor married to the college president's daughter, who have been married for more than 20 years and Nick and Honey the new biology professor and his wife. It is a late night, booze-filled evening in which the verbal battle of the professional fighters George and Martha ensnare the younger couple. Nick and Honey are not innocent observers to this nightmare of an evening. Their nascent marriage has parallels to that of seasoned George and Martha. The vicious war of words, alcohol and sex is harsh to observe. And with a three hour plus running time it can be exhausting for actors and audience alike. Yet, there is such a true payoff in the end of this marathon. By the time the play ends souls are bared, wounds are dug deep, yet a calm grace permeates the stage. We, the audience, witness a potential level of maturity emerge from the bitter childish proceedings and yes, in the committed hands of Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, an ending filled with love.
For those unfamiliar with the play, George, a history professor, and his wife, Martha, the daughter of the college president, return home at 2:00 a.m. from a staff party. To George's surprise and disgust, Martha, on the advice of her father has invited the new biology professor, Nick and his wife, Honey to their home for a night cap. Despite the ridiculous hour, Nick and Honey show up. What begins as a quick drink and awkward get together, soon descends into a verbal war between George and Martha, coupled by Martha's slip to Honey of a topic that George and Martha keep private to themselves. The conversations between these allegedly mature adults are very child like. Why Nick and Honey don't take a quick exit as soon as possible is the same mystery as why Peter doesn't flee his Central Park bench when Jerry intrudes. Yet, there is a fascination with both couples seemingly doomed to sink in the mire of the nasty insults as the night goes interminably onward. As the drink tally rises, the barbs become more vicious and stories about both couples deep dark secrets emerge. It all reaches to a raw, emotional climate
My fellow audience members commented that they did not remember the language of the play being quite so vulgar. Well, most persons have encountered Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? through the 1966 film, which, while nearing the end of the Hollywood censorship era, still had the language modified for film. George and Martha do not hold back, not with each other, and with each alchoholic beverage not in front of their guests. There is a discussion in acting whether or not actors and directors should feel obliged to follow the dictates of the playwright's stage directions. The Thespian is of the thought that one should do so. Mr. Albee has a rhythm that is lost without the directions that he leaves to be followed, a rhythm that sets the characters' nuances. If we would not dream of not following the rhythms of classical drama we should have the respect to follow our modern playwrights dictates as well.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is mesmerizing. All four actors are extremely well cast. Nick can sometimes come off as the pretty boy jock. Here, while the character is no match for George and Martha, Madison Dirks has a strength that he struggles to bring out whether defending Martha or his own manhood. The mousy Honey is given vivid life by Carrie Coon. A delightful drunk, Ms. Coon shows a roller coaster of emotions as she tries to be the dutiful spouse, yet shows a poignant vulnerability when her deepest shame is brought to the surface.
Amy Morton brings a depth to Martha that I have not seen in other productions. It is very easy to play Martha as a loud, shrill, shrew. Ms. Morton brings levels to Martha as she waxes and wanes through each level of her battle with George. And, when the battle is over, she is a heap of mourning searching for a long lost connection that she and her husband have denied each other over the years of their own deceit. Tracy Letts is a calm force as George. George can get lost in Martha's tirades. Mr. Lett's strength is in his body language as he lets George take Martha's verbal hits to the breaking point and hints to the audience when that point has been reached. George's explosions are telegraphed in ways that they still surprise the audience when they happen, but they are not wholly unexpected. What makes this couple work so well on stage is that, in the end, Mr. Letts and Ms. Morton show the desperation of two people who desire a deep loving connection. By killing the lies they have invented to keep their marriage going, they leave us with the hope that George and Martha can mature and grow.
The set design by Todd Rosenthal is perfect for a couple that has some prosperity and yet has the messy lived in look of people who only tidy when company is coming. A very nice touch on the mantel of George's study is a clock that is set to the actual time the play is taking place. Since the play happens in real time we the audience can note the time as it goes from 2:00 a.m. to past 5:00 a.m.
This is a marvelous production of an American masterpiece. Please see this production while you can and thank Arena Stage for bringing it to Washington.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will be performed in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theater through April 10, 2011. For tickets, dramaturg notes and other performance information please visit www.arenastage.org.