4/30/2023 WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? Merely Players Presents
There is a comment incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain that goes “Wagner’s music isn’t as and as it sounds.” This comes to mind as a rebuttal to those who think that watching Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is akin to “spending three hours with some very unpleasant people.” In point of fact, when the performances are as detailed and layered and complex and compelling as I found in Merely Players Presents’ production, the only response is “They aren’t as unpleasant as they sound.”
This is a top-notch vision of a classic American play that left me gasping at its audacity, impressed with the bravery of its cast, and totally moved by its deep and sketched-in-bourbon look at marriage and small town academic life during the early sixties.
George and Martha are the epitome of small-town academia – she is the daughter of the university president; he is the historian once thought to be the “heir apparent.” They have been “commanded” to “be nice” to the new guy – a biology professor and his whisp of wife. So, in the aftermath of a faculty party, they invite the young couple over for “a get-to-know-you drink or two.” Any pretense of friendly conversation soon degenerates into mind games of the most humiliating kind.
That the play begins at 2:00 AM when all are half-sloshed and exhausted, that alcohol is constantly consumed at a level that far surpasses any definition of dipsomania, that the new professor and his wife actually think it’s a good idea to
accept a semi-stranger’s invitation at that hour – all these factors are not irrelevant, but definitely take a back-burner to what’s really going on – a to-the-death battle between George and Martha in which only the stronger will survive.
Which begs the question, why do I believe (resolutely and with conviction) that George and Martha, if properly embodied, do not have to be completely unpleasant, that they can be worthy of our attention, that they may even deserve our sympathy and affection?
To be sure, in the 1966 movie version, Taylor and Burton pulled out the stops to make them as unpleasant as possible, stifling any nascent chemistry that should have been natural. As a result, the movie can be a tad hard-going. Fortunately, Alliance Theatre’s 2004 staging gave us a George and Martha who were, above all, totally in love, giving us an excuse to like them and to actually cheer them on in their games against this upstart (and blatantly hypocritical) young couple.
As in the Alliance production, here we meet them as a tired and semi-squabbling couple, who show affection for each other even as they sharpen their claws. Like Kate and Petruchio in another “battle of the sexes” play, they are worthy opponents, games-players who express their love through badinage, through half-sincere insults, through teasing, through humor. They LIKE this kind of conflict, are (fairly) evenly-matched for it, and no one else better step into their fray and judge them, least of all us in the audience.
And this is Martha’s big mistake – she shares what should be private with an almost-stranger. She breaks their “code.” And that is something George cannot, WILL NOT let pass.
There have been some who, without shame, insist Albee intended George and Martha to be two men but bowed to 60’s norms to make them man and woman. Some have even tried to cast a man as Martha, only to be “shot down” by first Albee, and ultimately his estate. This argument stems ONLY from Albee’s own sexuality, and NOT from anything inherent in the text itself, other than the misogynistic claim that “Martha fights like a man.”
In fact, textual analysis shows the bankrupt-in-thought nature of this argument. This is a play written in the sixties and drenched in a ‘60’s paradigm of gender roles. A gay couple would totally undercut this paradigm. Both women live in the shadows of the men in their lives, live to “serve and obey.” Honey almost disappears under the constant barking orders of Nick (until she doesn’t) and really has no agency of her own; she is written to be ONLY “Professor’s Wife” and “Holy Man’s Daughter.” Nick takes advantage of HER money, controls it, but is emasculated by it. Do you think that will become a weapon in George’s arsenal? Have you met these people?
And Martha may not seem to be in the shadow of her husband, but she is definitely in the shadow of her father, to the extent of making it her sole purpose in life to mold her husband into her Daddy’s image, no matter what George himself wants. And even with George, she can be uncomfortably deferent, bearing real emotional scars, even doing his bidding (at least when he “bids” publicly). When she breaks their private trust, she knows she must keep it a secret from George, and visibly panics when he finds out.
I have to confess at this point that George has been (for years) a “bucket list” role for me. Now I have aged past it (George is supposed to be “mid-forties but looks late fifties, and my own early seventies but looks mid-sixties face probably wouldn’t cut it). I say this so you understand why I think George is the stronger, why he ”wins” this particular battle, why he is a worthy opponent for his beloved Martha (and I don’t say that ironically).
Martha wallows in discontent, seethes when she sees George “disappear” around his colleagues, hates that he is content to remain a teacher and not an ambitious leader (like Daddy). She pushes and prods and goads and humiliates him in the hopes that he will “wake up” and “grasp his potential.” George, on the other hand is content. He is an educator, a professor of history, a man who lives to share his detailed and extensive knowledge with as many subsequent generations as he can. He hates campus politics and the self-betrayal a career advancement would mean.
It's not that he can’t do it – he spots Nick’s hypocrisies immediately and is able to use them against him. More to the point, he has for countless years been able to successfully navigate a battle-ridden marriage to the daughter of the one man who can make or break him career-wise. It’s as if campus politics are his heartbeat. But, unlike Martha (and her father), he does it with a charm and a skill that can be (or should be) downright appealing.
Still, these two are having a blast with this younger couple, and their enjoyment is palpable and infectious.
So, let us all praise Merely Players Presents’ successful mounting of this emotional roller-coaster of a play. Let us praise director Myrna Feldman for perfectly casting it, for taking advantage of the intimate playing area to exploit subtleties that would be lost in a larger venue, for keeping the pace ticking away like a bomb that can never be diffused until the final moments. The emotional beats of the plot all arrive (with precise timing), and, when the Act III explosions come, it becomes emotionally devastating, as much for us as it is for Martha.
Let us also praise the cast, Lisa Blankenship and Michael Miller as Martha and George, Garrett McPherson and Taylor Davidson as Nick and Honey. If Ms. Blankenship (at first glance) appears too young in comparison to Mr. Miller, her total commitment to the role made me (almost immediately) brush that aside – Martha would have had work done to “stay young.” Mr. McPherson is not only every (manly) inch the “young stud” Nick is supposed to be, but he also makes the difficult (and correct) choice to show he is more interested in the laboratory than the stadium. His defense of the still-cutting-edge science of genetics would not be out of place in a play written and set in the 2020’s. Finally, Ms. Davidson has a helium-infused voice that is so perfect for the character she almost disappears herself.
Yes, this is a long play, but it doesn’t SEEM long. Revealed secrets dramatically twist into emotional weaponry, dialogue whips and snaps like firecrackers, and twists of plot shine like bursts of light in a frighteningly dark forest. But what especially holds our interest are George and Martha, people “of a certain age” who draw us into their life, their story, their marriage, their games.
And, in the final analysis, WE are all the stronger for having experienced it.