Surely she didn’t just say that! And, jeez, is he really going to get her another drink?
Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is a train wreck of a play, cringe-inducing yet an impossible piece from which to tear one’s eyes. Set in 1962, this tale of a booze-infused relationship is a testament to the timelessness of marital disharmony; emotional manipulation and invisible parental influence.
Martha and George are the Queen and King of devastating wordplay: You can’t hurt strangers the way you can hurt those you love. They have been married for 20-odd years. George is a history professor, once of great promise and now a has-been (in Martha’s eyes, at least). She is a housewife and daughter of the president of the New England college where he teaches.
In the wee hours of the morning, they host new faculty member Nick and wife Honey for a post-soiree cocktail. The young couple knows not what the evening has in store.
Albee won three Pulitzer Prizes, but the year this play was nominated, the jury chose not to issue an award for best drama. Rife with sexuality and profanity, “Virginia Woolf” was ahead of its time in the public arena. It is a shameless display of drunkenness and a bold depiction of a woman’s equal power to be hateful and hurtful within a marriage.
Bourbon, brandy and gin play supporting roles. Honey can’t hold liquor, Nick realizes another drink is the only way to get through the night, and George and Martha are barely fazed by the copious cocktails they throw back like lemonade on a sultry day. For them, drunkenness is the norm.
Black comedy is an oft-used description of this play, but tragicomedy is more appropriate. Occasional glimpses of affection between George and Martha are always trumped by malice. They use Honey and Nick in their incessant game of who can hurt each other more. They solicit confidences, then use those against their prey and each other. It is a cycle of verbal violence, and while the words solicit laughter, it is laugher laced with disbelief.
Chris Timmons’ effective set for Theatre Charlotte is as tawdry and sordid as the elder couple’s marriage. A dark water crack streaks dingy yellow walls. Dusty volumes are strewn on shelves and in piles on the floor. The room sighs with resignation.
Paula Baldwin’s Martha is crass, harsh, and raucous. She easily straddles the beam between overt cruelty and subtle comedy. As George, Ron Law rallies from folksy to so angry that he’s scary. Martina Logan plays Honey and does drunk, sweet and righteous equally well. Adam Griffin is Nick, who is appropriately solicitous to his wife, congenial to George and lustful toward Martha.
“Virginia Woolf” won five Tony Awards in 1963, and the 1967 movie won five Oscars. Today’s audience is hard-put to make it through a play with two intermissions, but I can’t think of a scene to cut. Charles LaBorde directs with high dramatic flair. His use of grand gestures throughout the play makes the last scene’s final punch particularly disarming.
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