Be Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Sitting in the balcony seats at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theatre overlooking the stage, I had a disquieting thought as I watched George and Martha go at each other in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
I thought: there are no fictional characters. Everything I experienced at this compelling, raw production, even in its few calmer moments, felt realer than anything called “reality show.” It felt realer than anything on the nightly local news. George and Martha and their unfortunate guests Nick and Honey are famous in theatre history, and they churned up the stage, kick-started your memories, made you grin and laugh. They made you see yourself in their revelations, their brawling, their need to compete, hurt, connect, disengage, wound and understand.
In the more intimate confines of the Kreeger, the only escape is the Exit signs. Unlike the Kennedy Center production at the Eisenhower Theater, which gave you breathing room and distance, or the Liz-and-Dick movie version, witnessing this show at the Kreeger (and I think that’s what the audience is doing, bearing witness) is like being dropped into a combat zone.
The authenticity, the “real,” is not only created by a quartet of terrific actors and actresses, but by director Pam McKinnon’s sharp pacing, creating little puddles of reflections in a roiling sea, before combat begins anew. That pace keeps the play—two acts and well over three hours—from lagging. You may feel punchy, a little beat up afterwards, but you are never disinterested, sleepy or bored.
Part of the reason too is that the set by Todd Rosenthal looks so large and detailed. It’s a living room/disorganized library where steps, stairs a hallway and a door lead off to other spaces unseen, but imaginable. It looks rumpled, lived in, dominated by sprawling, scattered books and a stand-up bar to which the characters retreat to renew. Combat is not too strong a word for what happens during the long, nightmarish all-nighter we see—in fact the play has a fight choreographer and a fight captain listed in its credits (for the record, Nick Sandys and Carrie Coon, respectively).
Meet George and Martha, if you haven’t already. They are the creatures and creations of Playwright Edward Albee, who’s having quite a time for himself in Washington, being honored here with an Albee festival, a reading of all of his plays, and his presence at Georgetown University for part of a Tennessee Williams festival.
George and Martha live raggedly, furiously on the campus of a Northeastern university where George is a history professor married to the irascibly sharp-tongued, combative Martha, daughter of the university president, which makes contact with her a prize for a young biology professor like Nick and his hot-house flower of a wife, Honey.
George and Martha, who appeared to have finessed themselves into a rough marriage full of disappointments, carnage and games, hold court in the wee hours with Nick and Honey for an evening of horrible trash talk and insults hurled in equal parts like stilettos or rocks.
Amy Morton, half-blonde and all fury, with edges even in her hair, is like some sultry, long-striding lioness of displeasure, discontent, and just plain dissing. She’s hungry for the fight, but also hungry for all the lost love between the two. Periodically, she’s looking for physical comfort from George, who turns his back and picks up a book, or wards her off with a biting insult, one of which he repeats often: “I am seven years older than you, my love, and no matter what I will always be seven years older than you.”
The quartet drinks—a lot. And then some more. Honey, who appears to have tricked her hubby into a marriage by way of a false pregnancy, gets sick. The two men spar like intellectual gladiators, Nick using his youth, George his infinite, bottomless gift for expressing disgust with the best of words, wit and viciousness.
These four don’t just sit around. They pace, they hurl themselves at each other, they come close to blows, and they lounge askew on the couch. It’s clear what the games are: the famous “Hump the Hostess” and “Get the Guests” among them.
And in this production we give you Traci Letts as George, the feral historian. We’ve seen diffident, cruelly distanced and impossibly nuanced Georges, but never quite this furious and ferocious a George. Letts, who is also a playwright—with plays full of familial combat in them—gets that just so; he convinces you that this very public, teeth-bared cruelty is somehow just. He’s like Peter Finch in “Network” who can’t take it anymore.
And strangely, you know George and Martha carry around with them every opportunity, every bit of whatever love they had, with them. They are in ruins, full of dried up tears, spent passion, words like war, opportunities lost to the endless abyss of the past.
The title refers to a song she sang at the party they attended that night—giddy, silly and then, like a lost voice in the night, heart-breaking after all. Now that’s a reality show.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Production of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” directed by Pam MacKinnon, is at Arena Stage’s Kreeger theater until April 10. For more information visit ArenaStage.org.