Jean-Paul Sartre said that Hell is other people, but in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? we look to ourselves to find Hell, horrifying and intimate.
George and Martha (Gregory Linington and Holly Twyford), a booze-soaked couple well past their sell-by dates, are what passes for royalty in a seedy New England college town. She is the only child of the college’s long-time President, and he is her once-promising faculty husband, who for four years chaired the History Department, but no longer does. They spend much of the play, and by implication much of their lives, scourging each other for what they really are: she a promiscuous drunk; he an impotent failure.
Fun? You don’t know the meaning of the word! When Nick (Danny Gavigan), a wunderkind professor newly hired to the Biology faculty, and Honey (Maggie Wilder), his clueless, wealthy wife, drop over for a post-faculty party, post-2 AM visit, George and Martha gleefully lead them on a tour through the wreckage of their lives, and then introduce them to the wreckage of their own.
Why is Edward Albee’s masterwork so powerful, more than fifty years after its unveiling, and why does it seem so modern? It is scathingly funny, for one thing, but more importantly, it’s funny because it’s true. In Linington’s incarnation, George is a fast-talker; a Groucho Marx without the joy, who delivers his takedowns conversationally, as he might deliver background in a history lecture. (Talking about the physical attributes of their wives with Nick, George says “Martha is 108…years old. She weighs somewhat more.” Later, speaking of their son, George explains, “All I said was that our son, the apple of our three eyes, Martha being a Cyclops, our son is a beanbag…”) Martha is a little more direct. (When George slams a bottle in anger, breaking it, Martha spits, “I hope that was an empty bottle, George! You can’t afford to waste good liquor, not on your salary!”)
But the wit is really a vehicle by which the characters weaponize intimacy. In a typical horror story, characters are menaced by impossible things: aliens bursting out of their tummies; brain-eating zombies; vampires (except for the good kind) and so on. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the horror comes from everyday things — things that you will recognize from your own life, if you’ve ever had a professional failing, or a sexual encounter you came to regret, or pretended to be better than you are, or otherwise humiliated yourself. And the thing is that we all crave intimacy — the opportunity to confess our sins, perhaps over a bourbon or three, and obtain forgiveness. Here, though, the booze and the confessions come easily, but there is no forgiveness.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has entered the stratosphere of plays in which the interpretation is of primary interest. (But interpretation within limits: when I interviewed him eight years ago, Albee warned those who would direct his work that “All of the words are there for a reason. They should be spoken in the order I wrote them… and by the characters to whom they were assigned. And you may not cut. And you may not rearrange.”) Martha’s character is pretty much set in concrete by the text, and thus the play varies principally by how George is played. In the Kennedy Center production ten years ago, Bill Irwin played him as a passive-aggressive snake, attacking as he retreated. Four years later, in the Steppenwolf production at Arena, Tracy Letts played him as a roaring bully, a terrorist in his own home. The way they played that role profoundly affected the way we thought of Martha, and of the play.
Here, Linington and director Aaron Posner make George as sympathetic as he can be, face contorted and seamed in pain and helplessness as Martha recounts his many failures to their bewildered guests. In a very satisfying touch, Posner has George remain on stage during the first intermission, stewing in the humiliation Martha brought on him and, finally, cleaning up the mess from the broken bottle. Was it at this point that George began to contemplate his final, horrible revenge? Maybe, and we should be grateful for Posner for allowing the possibility to germinate.
George’s relative likeability allows Twyford to give Martha the full Medusa treatment, and so to present the character at her blowsy best. Martha, as Twyford gives her to us, speaks with a voice scalded by gin and bile, whose wide physical stance — useful in keeping her upright as she moves further and further into an alcoholic haze — suggests a bull about to charge a matador. “Fallen woman” was an archaic term even when the play debuted, but Twyford’s Martha is a fallen woman in the full meaning of the term: a woman so defeated by life that she has little to lose, and who then loses what little she has.
Nick and Honey are our stand-ins, new initiates to the college who are invited for drinks with an established couple, not knowing that they have received an invitation to a beheading. But they are more than passive observers; their own secrets become fodder for George and Martha’s vicious fun. (After playing “humiliate the host” but before playing “hump the hostess”, George suggests they play “get the guests”.) Albee thus invites us to consider our own sins, and our own secrets, and the consequences of coming out with them.
But serving as audience stand-ins bestows some heavy responsibility, and Gavigan and Wilder carry it well. Gavigan, a tall and powerfully-built man, gives Nick an added physicality that we don’t see in every production; when he reveals that his sport of choice as a youth was boxing, we can believe it. When George goes too far (at one point he calls Honey “monkey tits”) you can see the possibility that Nick will add physical bloodshed to the emotional and moral bloodshed already on stage. Wilder’s Honey is a hilarious drunk, high as a kite, oblivious to the carnage around her until she finally vomits and goes to sleep on the cool bathroom tiles. They thus present to us two satisfying responses to horror — rage and oblivion — and when Nick and Honey are finally brought low, we understand that there is no final escape from the truth.
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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
closes February 19, 2017
Details and tickets
Given the emotional fireworks, the prime function of the technical art is not to distract, and Ford’s design team executes that responsibility well. Meghan Raham’s set is satisfyingly deep, and full of exquisitely time-specific furnishings (although the set’s second story is like the gun on the mantle that is never fired; nothing happens there). Daniel Kluger’s original music — wistful cool jazz — similarly evokes those few years in the early sixties when war seemed firmly in the past and the future appeared to be without limit.
Aristotle wrote that the object of tragedy was to reach a climax leading to catharsis, but in a successful production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, such as Ford’s, the climax begins about twenty minutes into the production, and lasts for three Acts. The end of the final scene, with Martha lying in George’s arms, both of them stripped of all dreams and illusions, is catharsis, for them and for us.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee. Director: Aaron Posner. Featuring: Danny Gavigan, Gregory Linington, Holly Twyford, Maggie Wilder. Scenic Design: Meghan Raham . Costume Design: Kelsey Hunt . Lighting Design: Jesse Belsky . Sound Design and Original Music: Daniel Kluger . Stage Manager: Brandon Prendergast, assisted by Julia Singer. Produced by Ford’s Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.