When I mention to friends Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? most go back the Richard Burton/Liz Taylor movie version. That’s pretty much old news although it was news worthy when the film version opened in 1966. It also opened on Broadway in 1962 with both Burton and Taylor as George and Martha.
Alert! Intrepid Theatre Company’s award wining artistic director, Christy Yael- Cox has breathed new life into Albee’s Martha and George (Deborah Gilmour Smyth and Robert Smyth) in this current jaw dropper production at the Horton Grand Theatre downtown through March 26th.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? hailed as ‘shocking, hilarious, and thought provoking is broadly regarded as the greatest play of the past 50 plus years. And it has stood the test of time. Winner of the 1963 Tony Award for Best Play, the show takes on a different face as the season’s change. Language that was noted as shocking is no longer phoo, phooed. Attitudes that were once regarded outrageous can now be seen on screen and stage wherever we turn. Albee, Pinter, Durang and Mamet have changed the rules.
In watching Virginia Woolf today we have to look at it through 2016 eyes rather than 60’s eyes. Does that make it any less disturbing? I think not. It makes this production less shocking, but not any less troublesome. It is also much funnier and smarter sounding under the deft direction of Yael- Cox given her precise directing astuteness. She manages to zoom in on the small details and the bigger ones will always find their way.
Both Martha and George are fueled by disappointment in themselves and each other. They drink too much and hold a sick little secret over each other’s heads. They live on a small university campus that Martha’s father helped found. George teaches history and Martha…well. The sparring match begins when a young couple, Nick and Honey (Ross Hellwig and Erin Petersen) new to the university, arrive at the home of Martha and George for a nightcap after another party on the University grounds. It’s two in the morning.
Smyth and Smyth real life husband and wife, are probably two of the gentlest souls whose offstage love affair is transparent. But this is theatre and on stage as Martha, Ms. Smyth is a tigress ready to leap, criticize and rip apart her husband of twenty some years. It’s all in the game. Martha stalks, attacks, drinks and attacks again! She is caustic, funny, nasty, amusing and a tireless warrior. To say that her aim is the jugular would be an understatement. She hits him on all fronts from being a failure as a teacher to failing as a husband and everything in between.
He strikes back and as George, Smyth is the perfect foil and agitator: ‘bring it on!” The less he responds, the more she charges. The more she rides him the more he focuses his attentions on the younger couple while still managing to humiliate Martha in ways she never thought possible. Mr. Smyth’s perfect portrayal of George is one for the books and almost has you rooting for him, as he circles the wagons and looks for his next big opening to strike- no attack, anyone in his line of fire. Both have this game down to a science.
While Nick and Honey (the ideal couple for Martha and George to spar with) look on with awe and amazement, they are mercilessly drawn in to the fray. She by sheer cluelessness, he by his superior attitude thinking he can get the best of George. Defenses down, liquor loosening the tongue and other boundaries put aside, they unwittingly become part of Martha and George’s war strategy. Reality slowly steps in, builds to a crescendo when he, facing the truth about himself, realizes he and Honey will someday be George and Martha.
The Hellwig/ Petersen choice is the most balanced of couple/ adversary to occupy that young and innocent spot than seen in any other production and that includes the movie with Sandy Dennis and George Segal. Under Yael-Cox’s direction, Petersen gets it, adding another dimension to what could be a thankless role. But no! She, after a few rounds of Brandy, is a hoot dancing around like a wind force and he is stalwart in thinking that his rules will apply giving him the upper hand. Being a fly on the wall to all this dysfunction has its advantages. By looking in from the outside we have a pretty good idea of who the winners and losers will be.
Intrepid Theatre Company has hit the ball out of the park with Albee’s Virginia Woolf; all three acts and three hours of it. How the four sustain the energy to keep at it altogether in an all drinking night session must be part of the hype of socking it to the others only in ways that can be done on stage. In real life this exercise would be involving some serious law enforcement. The cast more than proved themselves to be at the top of their game with no letting up.
Overall the entire production is just about perfect. Mike Buckley’s eclectic set reveals the mish mash George and Martha live in both physically and mentally. On the center back living room credenza drinks, glasses and an ice bucket seem always handy and the sofa is badly worn, as are both husband and wife and the art, well…
Jeanne Reith’s costumes especially Martha’s are a bit more highbrow than her husband’s academic trademark of vest, loafers and neatly pressed trousers and striped shirt and studious looking glasses, that threw me when he first walked on stage. Curtis Miller’s lighting sometimes too bright and oft soft reflecting the mood of the moment using several table lamps that thankfully go on and off on clue. Kevin Anthenill’s sound design again reflects the moods of the players at a given moment ranging from classical to original.
And so at the end of an exhausting evening for both audience and players Albee manages to rip the layers off of two marriages; one already on the rocks in desperate need of reconciliation, the other about to be exposed for the phony veneer it portrays.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? gets two thumbs up from this reviewer. It plays through March 26th. Don’t miss it.
*For a tell tale exercise check out the lyrics by American songwriter, Joe South in his 1968 Games People Play, on YouTube.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: extended through April 10th
Organization: Intrepid Theatre Company
Production Type: Drama
Where: 444 Fourth Ave., Downtown
Ticket Prices: $38.00-$58.00
Venue: Horton Grand Theatre