Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a sacred text of pain, a holy howl of misery from people who have ritualized both their failures and their depravities, and made them institutionalized. In this incandescent production, Kathleen Turner and the astonishing Bill Irwin – seemingly as at home with Albee as Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards were with O’Neill – turn his signature characters of Martha and George into drunken angels of despair. It is church as much as theater, and it will give you a scrubbing. Halfway through the play you will feel as though you need a shower, and at the end you will feel as though you had one.
George, a waspish asp of a history professor, has been married to the ferocious Martha, the daughter of the Generalissimo who runs the backwater New England college where George teaches, for twenty-three years. The play opens as they return from some interminable faculty party to their home, imagined by scenic designer John Lee Beatty to be an upper middle-class manse vaguely in the Craftsman mode, with seedy furniture. “What a dump,” Martha says, recalling some line from a half-remembered movie, as she proceeds to perform her version of Drunk Housekeeping: picking up dirty laundry and stuffing it into the couch and behind cushions. For the rest of the evening, Martha will gleefully pull pieces of dirty family laundry from their hiding places and throw them around the room.
George and Martha are soused, but they will get much more drunk before the evening is over. Martha has invited a new faculty member, Nick (David Furr) and his wife Honey (Kathleen Early) for a post-party drink. George and Martha prepare for the evening’s festivities by tossing venom at each other – at Martha for the promiscuity her flirtatiousness suggests, as well as her promiscuous cruelty; at George for his failure of ambition and nerve, and for his – Martha says this a thousand ways, but never directly – impotence.
Nick and Honey arrive. Nick is a science prodigy – he got his Master’s degree at nineteen – and a handsome athlete as well. In this production at least, Honey is a numbskull, but as we later learn, she’s a rich numbskull. George and Martha start in on each other immediately. Nick is at first disgusted, then amused, and then finally – as the prodigious amount of bourbon he has drunk kicks in – elated to find that his colleague, which is to say his competition, is so weak and deficient. Honey gets drunk and falls asleep on the bathroom floor.
Albee throws out several narrative questions – how did George and Martha come to marry? what happened to George’s career? – for the audience to ponder and the characters to work out. For each answer, there is a fresh gout of pain, and it engulfs the characters like a fire. They keep coming back, but it seems as though there is less of them each time.
Albee reserves the answer to the most compelling, and ominous, question – what happened to George and Martha’s son? – until the third Act. Some viewers might conclude that the resolution of this question is curiously muted, after all the sturm und drang of the first two Acts. If you are one of them, put yourself in their place, and imagine that you had done this thing. In As You Like It, the old Duke observes that “This wide and universal theatre/Presents more woeful pageants than the scene/Wherein we play in,” and when we discover the son’s fate, a whole unseen universe of cruelty is opened, briefly, to us.
Beyond the play’s opening line, discussed earlier, I will not reveal a single word of Albee’s brilliant – and scathingly funny – dialogue. Instead, I recommend that you hear it delivered by these wonderful actors, who will make it sound thirty times more powerful than if you had read it on this page. Suffice it to say that Albee writes dialogue better than any man alive, including Stoppard, and that Virginia Woolf remains, after all these years, his best work.
A few words about these wonderful actors. Turner, wielding her body like body armor, wades fearlessly into a swamp of degradation, spurting bile from the stump of her soul, and emerges somehow whole, clean, and sympathetic. There is a relentless, and remorseless, consistency to Martha and Turner nails it with an almost frightening persistence and precision.
Furr, whose voice will allow him in a few years to play God or, with padding, Orson Wells, is perfectly cast as the ubersuccessful young academic who imagines himself to be a campus Napoleon but is actually a George-in-Training. Early, or director Anthony Page (or both) chose to make Honey a dimmer bulb during the play’s early stage than the script requires; I thought that ended up making Honey somewhat cartoonish while the other characters were so subtly nuanced. Once Honey got drunk, however, Early had an absolute blast with her, and so did the audience. (Incidentally, all of Page’s other choices seemed inspired, and the lengthy play flew through the evening.)
But the performance of the evening, and perhaps of the season, belongs to Irwin. Indeed, in years to come, people may talk about “Irwin’s George” in the way they talk about “Olivier’s Hamlet”. His body moves as though its parts were all in rebellion; if he thrusts his chin forward, a shoulder flies back; when his right foot steps out his rump jerks backwards and his left foot finds a place to balance it all. His body moves as though he was a cobra, or worse – a bag, made up to look like a man and filled with writhing worms. He flinches as he speaks, but he speaks nonetheless, constantly, driven by a pain so exquisite it has become a sort of cold joy; a negligible man, capable of the ultimate act of negation.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the 2007 national touring company, continues Tuesdays through Sundays at 7.30 until January 28 at the Kennedy Center. Additional matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 1.30. Tickets are $25-$78 and may be had by calling Instant Charge at 202.467 4600 or 800.444.1324 or online at www.kennedy-center.org/tickets/.