It can be hard to comprehend today how shocking Edward Albee’s drama is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It was when it premiered in October 1962, the same week the Cuban Missile Crisis began. While the atomic fireworks the world feared never happened, Albee’s three-act, over three-hour masterpiece unleashed an explosion that rocked American culture to the core. As Invictus Theater Company’s searing new production proves, the 60-year-old play still sizzles, resonating on emotional, political and philosophical levels.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Until 6/12: Monday and Thursday-Sat 7 p.m., Sunday 3 p.m.; Reginald Vaughn Theatre, 1106 W. Thorndale, invictustheatreco.com, $31 (students/seniors $26).
During a New York theatrical season in the fall of 1962 whose most impressive openings seemed to be British imports – the satirical review beyond the margin and the musical Stop the world – I want to get down—who is afraid of Virginia Woolf? was as American as an apple pie, even though that pie was baked in bourbon and stained with acid. At a time when Broadway’s main goal seemed to be to appease its stereotypical audience of the “tired businessman” and his wife, Virginia Woolf vivisected middle-aged marital dysfunction. Another Broadway hit of the same season, the coyly sickening comedy Never too late by Sumner Arthur Long, was about a 50-year-old woman who unexpectedly becomes pregnant by her 60-year-old husband. But—SPOILER ALERT—Virginia Woolf centered on a couple whose inability to conceive after 23 years of marriage led them to invent an imaginary son, and ultimately “kill” him.
And then there was Albee’s taboo-breaking language – harsh, vulgar, sometimes obscene. Audiences had never heard a woman scream “Fuck you!” to her husband on a Broadway stage before. Nor had they seen a married woman ostensibly seduce another man in front of her husband – whose response is to ignore the taunt and, instead, bury her nose in a storybook about the fall. of Western civilization. Virginia Woolf— the mainstream debut of a young, avant-garde playwright best known at the time for a handful of one-act acts produced in Europe and off Broadway — won Tony and New York Drama Critics awards ‘Circle. But it was denied the theatrical establishment’s most prestigious honor – the Pulitzer Prize for Drama – because Pulitzer’s board objected to its crude and sexual content. (Albee’s next Broadway play, the 1966 A delicate balancereceived a Pulitzer – an accolade interpreted by many as a belated excuse for previous slight myopia.)
There’s more to Albee’s text than swearing, of course. It is a work rich in exaggerated language, ranging from long elegiac monologues – dreamlike storytelling tunes – to laconic exchanges reminiscent of the minimalist precision of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. And the play assumes a wide range of cultural literacy on the part of its audience. References abound, ranging from classic allusions (the Punic Wars) to an obscure Bette Davis film (the 1949 film beyond the forest), the seemingly insignificant mention of which is actually a vital clue to the storyline’s theme of infanticide.
And then, of course, there’s Virginia Woolf herself – the pre-WWII proto-feminist British writer whose lifelong battle with mental illness led her to take her own life in 1941. Albee is said to have come across the phrase “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” – a playful nod to Walt Disney’s 1933 cartoon three little pigs– scrawled on the wall of a Greenwich Village saloon. For Disney, “the big bad wolf” was a metaphor for the Great Depression; for Albee, Virginia Woolf represents angst on a deeper, more existential level.
Virginia WoolfThe ferocious intensity of always packs a big punch. Indeed, the intimacy in front of Invictus’ showcase staging brings out the best in Albee’s play. Beautifully staged by Charles Askenaizer, the piece is performed by a top-notch quartet, which engages the rhythms and dynamics of the script with the sensibility of a finely tuned string quartet playing one of Paul Hindemith’s jagged lyrical compositions. or Elliott Carter.
The cello and violin in this dissonant yet exquisite chamber work are George and Martha. He is 46, six years younger than Martha, and is a history teacher at the small New England college run by his father. They are intelligent and often very witty. She drinks and he keeps her company. Their marriage is codependent and abusive. George and Martha have stayed together for the sake of “the child” – the imaginary son whose “existence” Martha must not mention to anyone outside of their dark and bitter marriage. Even on Saturday evening, this play does not take place – the day before the son’s planned return for his 21st birthday.st birthday. (Yes, “George and Martha” is an allusion to the Washingtons, and the imaginary son is a symbol of the “American dream” myth.)
Enter the violins: Nick and Honey, both in their twenties – late-night guests whom Martha invited for a nightcap after a college night out. Nick is a new faculty member in the science department; Honey is his trophy bride. They got married because they thought she was pregnant; it turned out she wasn’t, but like George and Martha, they stuck together. A biologist by training, Nick is a rising star in the field of genetic engineering — cloning. In 1962, cloning was indeed a hot topic in academic circles, young heterosexual couples married because the woman was pregnant, and “teacher wives” like Martha and Honey were judged on the reputation of their teacher husbands. Nick the biologist is the wave of the future; George the Historian, like Western civilization, is in decline. (One of Martha’s worst criticisms of George is for his “associate professor’s salary.”)
Two couples; a small living room cluttered with books (impressive set design and prop design by Kevin Rolfs); large amounts of alcohol. Board games ensue, as George and Nick – sexual rivals, past and future – gauge and measure each other. As the three-hour game progresses in real time, secrets are uncovered and facades are peeled away. Illusions are destroyed, but not people. As Martin Esslin wrote in his seminal 1961 text The Theater of the Absurd“The theater of the absurd does not reflect despair. . . but expresses the effort of modern man to reconcile himself with the world in which he lives. . . [and] to free him from the illusions that can only lead to maladjustment and disappointment. For the dignity of man resides in his ability to confront reality in all its absurdity; accept it freely, without fear, without illusions – and laugh about it.
Virginia Woolf– heartbreaking but also very funny – is the theater of the absurd formulated in the pitfalls of realistic domestic drama: Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Jean-Paul Sartre No Exit mixed with William Inge Come back, little Shebawith maybe a bit of Elliott Nugent and James Thurber The male animal thrown in for good measure.
Andrea Uppling as Martha is obviously too young for the 52-year-old character she plays, but she brings to life every twist of Martha’s unbalanced energy – the rowdy humor, the blatant sexuality, the deep frustration that pushes her to rage. attacks on George, the bottomless depression she unsuccessfully tries to medicate herself with alcohol. Martha d’Uppling engages our compassion in the face of her pain even as she pushes us away with her behavior. James Turano’s scruffy George, tired of years of suppressing his own emotional needs in order to keep Martha afloat, is remarkable to watch as he prepares to deal with the crisis that has inevitably come.
Keenan Odenkirk is a visually perfect Nick, the blonde, muscular Aryan archetype that Albee envisioned. And he beautifully projects the opportunistic personality that Albee also had in mind: shallow and ambitious, cunning and calculating. As Honey, Rachel Livingston is an Ibsen doll bride, with her singsong laugh and shy way of nibbling cocktail nuts on the coffee table. But, like Uppling, she reveals the pain and frustration of a woman trapped in “feminine mysticism,” to use the term coined by feminist writer Betty Friedan in her 1963 book analyzing dissatisfaction and lack of women’s voices in post-World War II America. .