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5/19/2024        WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?           Theatrical Outfit


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(Sloth Alert:  I was most impressed by Merely Players Presents’ 2023 staging of this play, and accordingly, am copying much of the “template” of my appreciation of their work.  Don’t judge.  Please.  I haven’t had enough to drink.  Yet.)


There is a comment incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain that goes  “Wagner’s music isn’t as bad 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 and production are as detailed and layered and complex and compelling as I found in Theatrical Outfit’s mounting, the only response is “They aren’t as unpleasant as they behave.” 


Like last year’s Black Box version by Merely Players Presents, this is an unforgettable vision of a classic American play that left me in tears,  totally moved by its deep and sketched-in-bourbon look at marriage and 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, are not really 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 (as did Merely Players’ 2023 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 and MPP productions,  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 their young guests.  Or, for that matter, 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 {spoiler alert} ”wins” this particular battle, why he is a worthy opponent for his beloved Martha (and I don’t say that ironically).


Martha wallows in unhappiness, seethes when she sees George “disappear” around his colleagues, hates that he is happy to remain a teacher and scholar 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, it is now time to praise Theatrical Outfit’s successful production of this emotional roller-coaster of a play.  Director Matt Torney has cast it perfectly, giving Atlanta mainstays Tess Malis Kincaid and Steve Coulter the roles they seem to have been born to play, for giving (relative) newcomers Devon Hales and Justin Walker ample room to shine and excel.  Mr. Torney keeps the pace reeling forward like a drunken sailor but chooses the exact right moments for calm and quiet to let the emotional peaks land with maximum impact.   By the time we reach the end (and it IS a long night’s journey into dawn), we are as emotionally wrung, as thoroughly devasted as the characters.


And Mr. Coulter and Ms. Kincaid are so convincing as George and Martha, so precise in their timing and emotional beats, so connected as a couple, we totally respond to their charm and wit even as we recoil at their cruelties and harshness.  As the “young stud” Nick, Mr. Walker is a bear of a presence, a quarterback who could easily crush Mr. Coulter into paste if he would ever let go of his obsequiousness and give in to his anger.  And Ms. Hales comes across so ‘60’s housewife mouse that when she stands up to Nick, it’s like a Hallelujah from one of her preacher father’s congregations.


Mr. Torney’s tech team also turn in (their usual) superlative work.  Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay have designed and built an expansive living room set that appears too expensive for the likes of a mid-level small-college associate professor but is believable once we learn Martha’s family connection to the University.  It is a quintessential academic lair, a storehouse of books and gewgaws the accoutrements of an unlimited supply of any and all forms of alcohol. It should be noted that this is first and foremost, George’s “teacher-cave” – there is little or nothing of Martha in the décor and furnishings.  Alcohol excepted.  Ben Rawson’s lighting is consistently cozy and warm, practical lights spewing shadows and amber tones, all dimmed enough to fully convince us of the time of night.  Costume Designer April Andrew Carswell has dressed the cast in clothing that is non-period specific but does not seem out of place on these characters during this era.  And the sound design gives us intermission and preshow music of the time (my pre-teen and teen years, in fact), with each act getting an “outro” song that is thematically relevant and musically fit-to-the-mood.


As I’ve dutifully reported in prior reviews, 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. I am twice surprised when the intermissions arrive (“Already?  Didn’t this Act just begin?”)  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.


    -- Brad Rudy (   #TOWoolf  #Albee)


As a single nit to pick, I would have liked if the program had given us Mr. Albee’s titles for each act, all three of which are descriptive, predictive, and evocative.   For the record:

            Act I   ---   Fun and Games

            Act II   ---    Walpurgisnacht

            Act III   ---     The Exorcism

 Photo Credits: Casey G Ford. #toWOOLF

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