Nearly 50 years old and not a speck of flab or complacency. How often can you say that about anything, much less a play? Edward Albee’s 1962 majestic three-act matrimonial grudge match, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is as vigorous and uncompromising as ever, especially in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production at Arena Stage, directed with such dynamite by Pam MacKinnon it gives you the giddy sensation of hearing the words for the very first time.Even though the sight of middle-aged Martha (Amy Morton) swilling daunting quantities of gin and such choice bits as “never mix, never worry” and “he’s the apple of our three eyes…since Martha’s a Cyclops” has snuck into our collective consciousness, this staging of Virginia Woolf seems fresh and unsettlingly unfamiliar. Lord knows, we’ve seen battling couples before on stage and screen, but never quite like this.
This newness can be partially attributed to actor and playwright Tracy Letts’ remarkable performance as George, the sourly disappointed and disappointing history professor at a New England college who is locked in an airtight and indomitable marriage to Martha, the daughter of the school’s august president.
Usually, George is the retiring of the two—a resigned husk of a man who gave up on life long ago, who participates in delusional fantasy games with Martha more out of habit than conviction. George normally takes a backseat to the stalking, exultantly acrid Martha, the showier role.
Similarly, the reluctant spectators of the couple’s blithe blood sport, the young biology professor Nick (Madison Dirks) and his wife Honey (Carrie Coon), are traditionally portrayed as wide-eyed naifs drawn into the drama during one long drunken night after a faculty party.
All the tables are turned in this production, starting with George, the personification of your mother’s warning to watch out for the quiet ones. Although true to Mr. Albee’s concept of the character as a cardigan-wearing schlub constantly wiping his smudged glasses and fetching ice, Mr. Letts’ George displays a lethal and sophisticated aggression that lacerates like a fine boning knife.
The well-worn sweater and weary smile are just camouflage for a calculating mind that stealthily needles away at Martha and the houseguests like being pecked to death by baby chickens. Mr. Letts’ portrayal reminds you of those professors you had in college, the ones with that soul-snuffing passive superiority and stifling sense of entitlement that comes with academia. You remember those guys? The ones who peppered their conversation with literary and historic quotes and spoke in Attic Greek and then expressed disdainful surprise when you didn’t understand a word they were saying? That’s George.
Mr. Letts’ precise, insinuating phrasing and inflections also mine Mr. Albee’s supple dialogue for the biggest laughs. You find yourself roaring over the most monstrous lines and behavior without a bit of remorse. Then it strikes you that George has a plan behind his seemingly insouciant remarks. Rather than finally roused to action by Martha’s vicious verbiage, you see the evening’s ruthless sports are an elaborate set up. George has had it. He can’t do it anymore—play those destructive, illusionary games with Martha set against a backdrop of all-night boozing. And he needs witnesses - Nick and Honey – for this final, irrevocable battle with Martha.
Miss Morton responds to the challenge of a different George with a Martha who evokes sympathy well beyond her being an alcoholic. The brio is there, the bitter life force that both repels and fascinates. Where George appears soft and shambling, Miss Morton is all trim angles and lanky elegance, nothing blowsy or frowsy about her at all. Of course, George’s spinelessness is an impersonation, so too are Miss Morton’s sharp edges concealing a desperate, sloppy vulnerability that just shatters.
Miss Morton gives Martha a hearty guffaw that is at once affectingly youthful and discordant. Your heart goes out to this mature woman trying to act all provocative and with-it for the younger Nick and Honey. Her mask of snappy cynicism slips away, revealing a Daddy’s girl who never grew up and never came of anything.
Keeping to the evening’s element of surprise are the portrayals of Nick and Honey. Mr. Dirks plays the role of Martha’s stud and houseboy as anything but a reluctant innocent. He too carries an aura of smug superiority in a rawer form than George’s seasoned air of academic privilege. Miss Coon is a delight as Honey, effortlessly funny as a pliant and sweetly sozzled soul who also displays hints of a controlling will when it comes to her ambitious husband. In some ways, Nick and Honey could be George and Martha in 20 years – if they don’t watch out.
With your expectations for Virginia Woolf off-balance, the whole play changes and becomes wildly alive. Instead of watching from a comfortable distance a nastily enjoyable battle of wits unfolding in a book strewn living room, Steppenwolf’s production makes you part of the play’s essential tragedy. In most stagings of the play, you emerge with the consoling thought that George and Martha are going to go to their graves gasping for the last word. Here, you know the party’s over – in every sense.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
by Edward Albee
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Produced by Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Presented by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: 3 hrs, 15 mins with 2 intermissions
At Home at the Zoo is part of Arena Stage’s Edward Albee Festival,
presenting all published works by Edward Albee.
DCTS review of Albee’s At Home at the Zoo, also part of the Edward Albee Festival at the Mead Center for American Theater.
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
- Scott Brown . StageDive
- Gary Tischler . The Georgetowner
- Jolene Munch Cardoza . Washington Examiner
Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
Bob Mondello . Washington City Paper
Kate Wingfield . MetroWeekly
Jenn Larsen . WeLoveDC
Missy Frederick . DCist
Maura Judkis . TBD
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian