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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
October 14, 2012

Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? presents a realistic, and consequently even more depressing, production of the classic play.  With a focus on the language of the script, the talented company draws out all of the wit, humor and cruelty in Albee’s text.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the story of George and Martha, a middle-aged couple at a small New England college.  George, a history professor, is married to Martha, the daughter of the college’s president. It’s two in the morning and they’ve just returned from a faculty party. Martha informs George that a new professor (Nick) and his wife (Honey) will be joining them any minute for cocktails.  What ensues is a liquor-fueled night of spousal fighting, mind-manipulating games, traps, and secrets.  Despite Nick’s awkwardness at witnessing George and Martha’s fighting (sometimes overt, more often covert), he never follows through on his threats to leave and instead stays as they all get drunker and drunker.

What makes this production so interesting – and unique, to be sure – is that it feels as though George is the focus.  Martha, to be sure, has her moments to dominate, but the direction and acting both seem to point to George as the central, guiding force.  Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, as George and Martha, have managed to make these difficult characters feel completely real, and each has one or two moments in which we can truly empathize with them – which makes the show all the harder (in a good way) to watch.  There is honesty and naturalism in their performances and we see the symbiosis in their destructive relationship.  Madison Dirks’ Nick is nicely nuanced- onion-like we see the different layers of his character peel away until we can see what he is at his core.  Carrie Coon, as Honey, gives one of the best portrayals of being intoxicated I’ve ever seen and offers a nice counter energy to the heavy intensity of the other characters.

The ensemble’s handling of the text is remarkable. Not only are the performers clearly very well-trained vocally, but they tackle the text as they would Shakespeare – using the sound and feel of the words to draw out the meaning and intention behind every sentence and highlighting the cleverness of Albee’s words choices. Lines that I had never noticed before were suddenly so striking. Morton and Letts use the sounds of each word, not just their meanings, as weapons and the pair is completely up to the challenges of the marathon verbal sword-fight that is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

Pam MacKinnon’s direction is clear, non-presentational and deliberate. She uses the staging to highlight the power struggle that is going on in any given moment and we are always clear who is leading the action, the game, in any particular moment. Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design creates a perfectly suitable, very lived-in living room set with books strewn about everywhere.  Allen Lee Hughes lighting design is wonderfully realistic – from the spill of light on the wall of the staircase when a light goes on in another room to the pre-dawn haze we see through the living room window.  Nan Cibula-Jenkins’ costume design, however, does not serve the script as effectively.  The oft-called “slim-hipped” Honey wears a shapeless skirt, blouse and jacket and it is not until she removes the latter that we can even sort of see that this is the case.  In one scene, Martha goes to change her clothes.  George calls a lot of attention to this fact; this is part of Martha’s seduction of Nick.  When Martha reemerges, he, very ironically, says “Why Martha! Your Sunday chapel dress!”.  Yet, in this production, Martha is wearing a rather non-descript pant and shirt combo that is dowdy rather than scandalous.

The Steppenwolf Theatre Company has put a distinctive stamp on Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Highlighting the reality of the characters and staying clear of presentationalism, we feel as though we are in the home with this couple, rather than watching them onstage.