Fifty-two years after its Broadway debut, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee’s alcohol infused comic-drama about couple dynamics, is experiencing a revival. The 50th Anniversary Broadway revival in 2012 was very well received. Making that the fourth time it has been on Broadway. Locally the Seattle Rep is offering this diamond in the rough directed by Braden Abraham with R. Hamilton Wright as George, Pamela Reed as Martha, Aaron Blakely as Nick, and Amy Hill as Honey. Returning home from a faculty party at 2 AM, George is surprised to learn that Martha has invited guests over who will be arriving soon. Abraham makes sure that the ensuing three hours keeps us laughing and also on the edge of our seats.
The Rep loses a few points because the Encore program notes don’t include the names of the Acts. This is not a minor omission as the Act titles offer clues to what the play is about. Here they are: Act 1: Fun and Games, Act 2: Walpurgisnacht, and Act 3: The Exorcism. Walpurgisnacht is German for Witches’ Night, celebrated on April 30th, the night before the May Day spring festival. One myth holds that witches were once magical girls who’s souls have become fully tainted, a bit like the development of a bitter, disappointed Martha out of a sweet girl who wanted to support her father’s work. Hector Berlioz named the fifth movement of his Symphonie Fanstastique ‘Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.’ This is not a coincidence as Albee considered a career as a composer before discovering his gift for writing plays.
Given the reach that movies possess, this play may be better known by the 1966 film directed by Mike Nichols starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis. Though a movie is not a play, and although the cast spent three weeks in rehearsal before shooting began, some artistic changes move it away from the experience that Albee intended. For starters it is shot in black and white. Albee commented he certainly wrote it in color. Second, Elizabeth Taylor is too young for the part and Burton is too old. In life he was seven years her senior; in the play George is six years younger than Martha. Plus, Taylor is portraying a character 20 years older than she was at the time. Even with make-up, a weight gain, etc. Taylor knew she was still too young. The child George and Martha share had to have his age reduced to a teenager from the 21 that’s used in the play. These details makes a big deal of difference because some of the ways George needles Martha pivot on Martha’s age or the 6 year age difference.
In the play, and this production, the ages appear approximately right. Pamela Reed inhabits Martha with an earthy maturity and incendiary sexuality. George, as brilliantly played by R. Hamilton Wright, can spar with Martha or summon the strength to completely dominate her if provoked enough. And yes, he gets provoked enough.
Albee named Act 1 ‘Fun and Games.’ Why? Albee wants us to attend to rules, and who sets the rules, and the implications that unfold when games are played and it is not clear who can set or change rules or even how one can claim victory. Martha and George are the Main Event, and Nick and Honey are Martha’s invited guests, they are the audience or spectators, and, being human, they bring their own Fun and Games.
As the play has reached its half-century mark, the dynamics and outcome are no longer surprises for those with some theater literacy. In this case, one can enjoy the show with questions in mind for the production: Question 1: How combative are George and Martha? The clue to this is how much they step on each other’s lines. At times when this production finds its stride, it’s is a challenge to keep up for the audience. Which is as it should be! This is combat, or as George eventually yells at Martha this is “total war!”
Question 2: Are the distinct ways couples deal with love clear? (Martha and George seemed to have fallen in love before marrying; Nick and Honey were children playing doctor together and never experienced that charged state—getting married because that seemed expected of them and Honey was possibly pregnant). George and Nick seem at opposite ends of the the male/female power lines. George appears horribly henpecked and Nick is deferred to and held up by his wife Honey as and ambitious academic with past successes as an athlete. But, as with most relationships, all is not as it appears. This production makes the various rankings, and challenges to ranks quite vivid. Aaron Blakely and Amy Hill in the roles of Nick and Honey have their turns being seduced or turned off by the spectacle of Martha and George duking it out. They also have to keep a connection between themselves and try not be pulled apart by the violence of the domestic scene they find themselves somehow participants in. They do all this very well.
Question 3: Does the creative team (set, lighting, sound, costumes, etc.) contribute to making the play a success? Yes, the set deserves special praise as it is how you might imagine a mid-career academic’s home would look like in 1962 at an old college. This is thanks to Scenic Designer Matthew Smucker. The costumes by Heidi Zamora were spot on, down to the fabrics and muted color palette popular in the early 60s.
Question 4: The last question is for the audience—can we remember what we know but suspend our disbelief? It helps to know who Virginia Woolf was, and that she was a writer that some feel is difficult to understand at times. Albee sprinkles in references from nursery rhymes to classical plays such as Hamlet: in Act 3 George decides to read at 4 o’clock—in the morning! Martha is dumbstruck, but George persists, repeating “read” 3 times. This echoes Hamlet’s answer to Polonius in Act 2, Scene 2: when asked what he was reading he replied, “words, words, words.” Each of these words-in-series requires a different inflection, and Wright nails it. Another possible reference to Hamlet is the story within the play, evocative of the play within the play gambit that Hamlet used.
This play deservedly keeps coming back because it isn’t about 1962, it’s about the eternal churn of power, dominance, love, seduction, and the tricks and betrayals of our imaginations. Go, see it done right before it closes in the middle of May.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, by Edward Albee, directed by Braden Abraham, Scenic Designer Matthew Smucker ; Costume Designer Heidi Zamora, Lighting Designer L.B. Morse, Sound Designer Matt Starritt, Fight Coordinator Geoffrey Alm, Dance Coordinator Kathryn Van Meter. Seattle Repertory Theatre (Bagley Wright Theatre), 155 Mercer Street, Seattle Center, Queen Anne, 7:30 PM Thurs-Sun, 2 PM Sat matinees, half-priced rush tickets one hour before any show. Box Office: 206-443-2222 | 877-900-9285, http://www.seattlerep.org/Buy/Tickets/, closes May 18.