Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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.

(l-r) Tracy Letts as George, Carrie Coon as Honey, Amy Morton as Martha and Madison Dirks as Nick (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

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.

Amy Morton as Martha (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

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? runs thru April 10, 2011 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC.
Details here.
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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

Highly Recommended
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.

not here.

Related:

DCTS review of Albee’s At Home at the Zoo, also part of the Edward Albee Festival at the Mead Center for American Theater.

Other reviews:

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
DCTS review

 

Comments

  1. Gerald Gleason says:

    Right on!
     
     

  2. Steven McKnight says:

    I must respectfully disagree, painful as it may be to a long-time fan of Steppenwolf who first saw one of their productions 28 years ago. 

    While an experienced theatre-goer may enjoy a new production that is “off-balance”, I think that the show has a problem in that the two leads are “out of balance.”

    While all four members of the cast are tremendously talented actors, I think that this interpretation robs the play of much of its elemental power.  I believe Geoge should be more wounded than he is.  Tracy Letts makes him too resilent and less damaged.  In contrast, Amy Morgan never seems to embrace Martha’s bile and bitterness.  From her first words it seemed like she did not enjoy cursing or being a little outrageous.  As a result, the two characters are woefully out of balance when placed on an imaginary dramatic scale.  I never felt like George and Martha could dish it out as equal competitors.   

    That said, it is still a very enjoyable theatrical evening.  Carrie Coon was particularly memorable, and I will enjoy looking for her in future roles.  Still, I feel that Bill Irwin’s George at the Kennedy Center a few years back was far closer to the playwright’s intent (and is perhaps the definitive George ever).  If this is the only “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” you ever see, know that you saw a production that was very polished, entertaining, and funny, but that you haven’t seen experienced the work at its shocking best.

  3. While I greatly enjoyed Bill Irwin’s portrayal and thought it exceptional, it went along the lines of traditional ways George has been portrayed through the years, although Irwin did draw on his physical training as a clown and comic actor to give the role a physicality and athleticism I had not seen before.

    I think it is a testament to the play that it can accommodate different takes on the characters without compromising the playwright’s intent. Tracy Letts, in my view, reinvigorated the role and made me see new things, and that does not detract from the majesty of Bill Irwin’s portrayal.

    And I have to say I respectfully disagree about Morton’s Martha and Letts’ George not being equal competitors. Usually, it seems as though George is outmatched from the get-go because of Martha’s pestilent life force–even though a boozehound, she is alarmingly, shockingly alive. While George seems half-dead until roused to the final battle with his wife. In Steppenwolf’s production, they seem perfectly matched–the distinction is that they use different weapons. George uses the passive-aggressive sting of his words, his seeming detachment, his world-weariness. Martha uses her vitriol, her bitterness, her ugly energy–and even her sexuality. It DOES bother George when she is necking and more with Nick, and he responds accordingly. In Steppenwolf’s production you get the only glue holding them together is liquor, fighting and fucking. That Martha is the ultimate prize in the faculty screwing sweepstakes both empowers and chagrins Martha. Martha’s distinction as a trophy screw, I think, is a real thorn in George’s side, but he puts up with it knowing that it is one of the few ways Martha can feel important.

  4. David Musselman says:

    I too agree, that while this George and Martha are not always what I expected, their relationship was revelatory, and well-matched.

  5. McCall Doyle says:

    My husband and I just saw the closing night performance and were completely blown away.  The direction was marvelous-it never felt like three hours because it kept moving forward at such a wonderful pace.  The interactions between the characters were perfect, each one bringing something new and different to the table.  I did think that Ms. Morton peaked too soon in her portrayal of Martha, leaving her no room to grow in the final act.  I felt she needed a tad more sex appeal as well.  That said, her highs were very high, and she did offer a vulnerability that haunted in the end.  Mr. Letts gave one of the best performances I have ever seen.  Every time he took the stage, I was completely riveted.  He was strong, weak, conniving, biting, hilarious, malicious, loving, boyish and weary…and I loved every single minute.  I’m sure Mr. Albee was thrilled with this interpretation of his timeless play.

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