Review: Searing Production of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” from Theatre Institute at Sage

Welcome to fun and games at George and Martha’s! (l to r) Leigh Strimbeck (Martha), David Bunce (George), Alexandra Phillips (Honey) and Matthew McFadden (Nick).

Review of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”

Production of Theatre Institute at Sage

by Gail Burns and Larry Murray

Larry Murray: With the Steppenwolf production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf currently on Broadway through February 24, 2013, I was surprised to find that permission was given to the Theatre Institute at Sage College to do the play. But this being the 50th Anniversary of its original Broadway opening on October 13, 1962, there is cause to celebrate. The intensity that director David Baecker has brought to the venerable work actually took my breath away at times, and his superb cast ran the equivalent of a theatrical marathon. How did you find George and Martha, the most famous dysfunctional couple in theatrical history?

Gail Burns: There is nothing easy or pretty about George, Martha, or their marriage. They are messy and brutal and clearly hopelessly dependently in love. It is interesting for me to see this play again now that I’ve been married for 31 years – George and Martha can only claim 23. The more closely you examine it, spending a whole lifetime with another person is an odd concept that is pretty well guaranteed to lead to some sort of insanity! When I first heard that David Bunce would be playing George I felt he didn’t have the right “look” – physically he’s a Wally Cox/Woody Allen/Michael Jeter bespectacled lightweight, a man Martha could snap in two and use as the toothpick for the olive in her martini – but looks can be deceiving! While slight of build, Bunce’s George is positiively demonic and not a man to be messed with.

Strimbeck was a no-brainer casting as Martha. She’s a fiesty funny feminist in her own right. I love the logo some clever artist has created for her monthly “Read My Lipstick” series at the yBar in Pittsfield. Its very Martha! Again, she lacks the physical size often associated with Martha. She is not big and blowsy, but she proves conclusively that size doesn’t matter as much as acting ability.

Larry: And she has that in spades. Then there’s Nick and Honey, who go to George and Martha’s for a cocktail and end up in their crosshairs.

Gail: I find Nick (Matthew McFadden) and Honey (Alexandria Phillips) much harder to understand than George and Martha. Why ARE they together? I am not at all convinced they love each other. They are much less interesting people to me, and I think to Albee, but then they are that much younger and haven’t had the chance to age into their “charming excentricities.”

Bunce, Strimbeck, and Baecker are all Russell Sage faculty members as well as professional actors/directors, but McFadden and Phillips are Sage students – a sophomore and a senior respectively – so Baecker really has the right age mix here. McFadden and Phillips hold their own against the titanic talents of Bunce and Strimbeck – what a wonderful theatre experience for them! As I mentioned, these characters are not as interesting or appealing as their seniors, so the roles present a real challenge for young actors.

Everything starts simply enough between the two professors and the two wives.

Larry: I agree, and am also in awe of the players. I think Leigh Strimbeck and David Bunce have a chemistry that is the catalyst for each other’s portrayals. The dynamic between Martha and George is as much in the reactions as the actions themselves. Assaulting each other with ever more severe accusations and recriminations, watching closely you can see the target of the bile plotting their next retort, their own offensive in this war of wits, while Honey reacts by throwing up and Nick parries some of their repartee with his own, usually inadequate, ripostes. How did you view all that carrying on?

Gail: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is ultimately a play about the tragedy of barreness. Neither couple has children, and this is a great sorrow to them. Albee was the adopted son of a barren couple, and it is well known that that adoption was disasterous for all concerned, but I don’t think that’s what he’s writing about here. It was the tail end of the Baby Boom and Albee was in his mid-30′s, no doubt surrounded by peers who were already raising large families when he wrote this play.

As a gay man in 1962, he must have been grappling with the truth that the only way he could become a father was to deny who he was. That being gay, biologically, means being barren. And barrenness is a terrible thing to face. He has George pester Nick, a biologist, about the then cutting-edge fields of in vitro fetilization and genetic engineering. One note he harps on is how genetic engineering will enable scientists to make everyone the same, “normal” – which in that era would have meant no more homosexuality.

None of the characters in the play are gay, but you can hear Albee’s own fear of being among the unchosen when this scientific apocalypse arrives. For George and Martha their barrenness rather than their sexual orientation renders them “redundant” in this brave new world. Martha, who is six years older than George, must be in her early fifties. If she has not gone through menopause, she will soon, and then all hope is lost.

Nick and Honey, of course, are just as incapable of procreating as George and Martha, and part of their purpose is ferreting out that information and then using it to torment the younger couple.

Larry: It’s not hard to see why it got a Tony as the “best play” that year, plus the Pulitzer. Leaving the Meader Little Theatre yesterday, I kept thinking that this is the best play that has ever been written, right up there with Our Town, better than Long Day’s Journey into Night, and neck and neck with Angels in America. It’s less dated than Death of a Salesman and Streetcar Named Desire, too. Would you put it quite as high on the list of American plays?

As the evening of drinking and game playing intensifies, things sometimes get a little out of hand.

Gail: It does have a timeless quality. The play is about characters and language rather than time and place. But I was also struck by how the action passes in real time. At the start of the play you are told that it is 2:30 am and by the end three hours later it is almost dawn, which sounds about right for 5:30 am on a September morning in New England. Action occurs while the audience and actors are seperated during the two intermissions, just as it would in real life. What makes this artistic experience so harrowing and compelling is that audience and actors are literally living it together.

Larry: How did the three hour running time agree with your fanny? I found the theatre very intimate and comfortable, and the way the set was arrayed before us, from wall to wall, made it an almost cinemascope production for me. Sitting in the second row, my entire field of vision was overwhelmed by the set and actors, to the point that I actually felt I was another guest in their living room that they had not yet discovered.

Gail: I am adapting to my new life as a handicapped theatre patron, and the spaces where wheelchairs, or in my case a special folding chair, can be placed are in the first row, literally on the stage floor, far to the sides. Bringing my own chair meant that I was not in pain and the three-hour run time didn’t bother me physically. Being on the floor very close to the actors, made me feel like I was right in George and Martha’s livingroom with them. I was rather put out I wasn’t offered a drink! But the Meader Little Theatre is an intimate and comfortable house, although, as you remarked, well hidden on the Sage campus – be sure to get clear directions if you have never been before – and Duncan Morrison’s set did push all the action downstage right into the audience’s faces. He had done a nice job selecting furniture and props of the era while keeping the set homey. A New Englannd college professor and his wife would not have had the latest furniture. Really the biggest giveaway that we weren’t in contemporary times was the lack of a computer on George’s desk upstage.

Larry: Even without cellphones and computers in the tale, it still seems entirely possible that somewhere in America are another hard drinking George and Martha taking Nick and Honey to the emotional cleaners. The plot is really a series of sado-masochistic mind games during which it is hard to be sure who is the alpha leader as the power shifts continually.

Gail: It’s also very funny, Larry, I was laughing throughout. Of course I laugh at Chekhov too, but I would encourage attendees to listen for the humor in Albee’s script because it’s definitely there. He is writing about very smart people, and they are both wicked and wickedly funny to each other.

Larry: What I find amazing about this play is how Edward Albee keeps stoking the conflicts between the two couples, building suspense even as it seems things have calmed down. The play does not have the expected theatrical arc of introduction, exposition and conclusion but rather – if you graphed it – it would look like a drawing for a reverse roller coaster, one that keeps climbing ever higher, and plunging the audience ever deeper into the George and Martha abyss.

Gail: I thought Baecker’s direction and Robert Brisson’s lighting design helped move actors and audience through the play’s many ups and downs and twists and turns. Even though the set is shallow, Baecker uses every inch of space and every stick of furniture. Brisson’s lighting helps focus attention and set the mood as the action and energy change.

From where I was sitting, I was particularly captivated by a little “time out” chair that sat beside the front door. Why was it there? I thought at first that it was to hold Nick and Honey’s coats since there was no closet in the set, but it wasn’t. Instead it served as George’s “throne,” his place of strength. Whenever he was in the ascendency, whenever he was winning, he would go there and sit in solitary splendor. It was just a little wooden dining chair with an upholstered seat, but Baecker and Bunce used it very cleverly.

Larry: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a breathtaking emotional ride that requires a bit of stamina from those with short attention spans. Even so, it is an ideal first play for those new to the theatre, like students and young careerists, whose time is precious. The thought of spending three hours in a theatre can be pretty off-putting in this wireless, multi-tasking age. But if you look closely, the characters of this play are multitasking as well, inside their own heads, trying to keep up with the games these characters play. Interestingly there isn’t a big bang to end it all, rather a whimper, as long held illusions go “poof”. And I had some interesting dreams last night, it affected me that deeply.

Gail: And as you can see I had some deep thoughts about where this play sprang from in Albee’s psyche. He has said adamantly that it is not autobiographical, and he is absolutely right – it is not about his parents – but all creative work comes from somewhere in the creator. Seeing this production after hearing from a gay male friend who recently became parent by adoption fairly late in life, opened my eyes to how painful it has been, and often still is, for LGBT people, especially men, who long to be parents.

Art is confession, art is the secret told. But art is not only the desire to tell one’s secret; it is the desire to tell it and hide it at the same time.” – Thornton Wilder

I also thought of something an older friend of mine said to me about marriage shortly after she’d been widowed. She said that if you are married for a long time, it is really many marriages – the new marriage of lovers, the marriage with babies and children, the empty nest, the marriage of caregivers, etc. People often speak with horror about George and Martha’s “dysfunctional” marriage, but we have to remember that this is just one of their many marriages, and that, in their own abusive, alcohol-addled way, they are survivors. As Sondheim wrote “I’m Still Here!” At the end of the evening, they’re still there, still together, still alive.

Larry: I think we might agree that people should go to see it because it is a great play.

Gail: With a cast you will never forget.

Larry: In an almost perfect theatre for this work.

Gail: It’s the sort of evening of theatre that is so remarkable you may never go back to the tv again.

Theatre Institute at Sage Presents Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Directed by David Baecker, Lighting Board Operator Elyssa Blakeman-McCain, Lighting Design by Robert Brissom, Seet Design by Duncan Morrison, Costume Design by Lunne Roblin, Nick Martiniano Stage Manager; Austin Lombardi Assistant Stage Manager. Cast: Leigh Strimbeck (Martha), David Bunce (George), Alexandria Phillips (Honey), Matthew McFaden (Nick). Three acts with two ten minute intermissions with a total running time of three hours. November 1-11 at the Meader Little Theatre on the Troy Campus of the Sage Colleges. Sage.edu/theatre

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