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A great revival of a canonical play, as in the Walnut Street Theatre’s handsome new production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is a special kind of invitation. It calls us to witness both what the play introduced, those innovations that still inform our modern stage, and the traditions crystallized within.
For as much as Virginia Woolf pointed the way forward for the American theater—bringing a thrilling new tenor of vulgarity to the stage, and thus widening our portrait of domestic life—it is the 20th century’s last word on the drawing-room play. Once Albee had his word on the genre, there was no more to be said, so thoroughly are its conventions exploded, all its tropes rendered mere illusion, in a theatrical display of fireworks that remains unsurpassed in sheer caustic power.
Bitter marriage, violent calm
Directed here by Bernard Havard, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? takes place in the early hours of the morning after a faculty party before the sun has risen. Husband and wife George (Greg Wood) and Martha (Susan Riley Stevens) have invited a younger couple back to their home for drinks: Nick (Brandon O’Rourke), a new hire in the biology department, and Honey (Anna D. Bailey), his wife, who can’t quite hold her liquor. The conversation quickly turns into a series of games, peeling back the layers of George and Martha’s bitter marriage and threatening to pull their unwitting guests into their destructive orbit.
Martha is, as always, the center of the storm: the daughter of the college’s president who is vociferously unhappy in her marriage. Stevens makes a meal of the part, prowling the room in search of prey and pitching her voice somewhere between baleful growl and sultry croon. There is a keen awareness of her body as an instrument, not simply on the part of the performer but also on the part of the character. One of the rich challenges of Martha is that she herself is a great actor, cycling through masks to seduce Nick and to claw at George. Stevens is thrilling to behold in this role.
She is matched, in delicate balance, by an equally absorbing Wood, whose careful precision as George complements Martha’s high-strung presence and makes for an indelible chemistry. He finds a measured escalation in George’s frustration—from his stagnation as associate professor of history to his emasculation in comparison to Nick—that reaches a chilling apex in his eerily quiet final act. It’s in those moments where his violent calm unsettles Martha’s prowess, and you realize he has the tightest grip of anyone on the room.
The intoxication of unreality
O’Rourke and Bailey, as Nick and Honey, become deft counterparts to the older couple, realizing the nature of George and Martha’s cruel games, succumbing nonetheless. O’Rourke plays Nick with a cool reserve, the smooth embodiment of modern man that seems to be the promise of his particular pedagogy, confident until he realizes that his defenses are no match for George and Martha. Bailey’s Honey is the least sober of the four, draped like a question mark across the couch, in a performance that delights in slowly drifting into its own tipsy little world. It segments Honey from the other three and provides moments to serve as microcosms for the entire dizzying affair.
For there is a certain kind of intoxication that lingers in the play (the copious consumption of alcohol notwithstanding). All four characters gradually lose themselves to a world where the line blurs between what is real and what is constructed, where the concepts of history and biology are pushed to such abstraction as to lose any tangible meaning beyond the forces at work between these two couples. If everything is a game, then nothing is real. If nothing is real, our only truth can be found in illusion.
If this production leaves anything to be desired, it’s in its staging, with a proscenium set that lacks the depth of the performances and the script. Designed by Roman Tatarowicz, George and Martha’s house seems almost a flat panel, lending itself to occasionally awkward blocking near the front door. The one flourish is a spattering of confetti flowers at the top of the arch, which doesn’t suggest George and Martha’s verbal fireworks as much as they do a gilt frame around an old painting.
But these cosmetic missteps hardly matter, especially as the play rockets to one of the most stunning conclusions in all American theater. “Truth or illusion,” Martha says to George as the play reaches its final turn. “Doesn’t it matter to you at all?” In Albee’s world, it’s all one and the same. Illusion finally crumbles, and nothing remains. The guests leave in the morning, dawn creeps back in, but it is hard to say whether George and Martha can return to the same world they once inhabited—their lives, as all lives, built on unreality.
What, When, Where
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? By Edward Albee, directed by Bernard Havard. $25-$175. Through February 4, 2024, at Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.
Walnut Street Theatre is a wheelchair-accessible venue with ADA-compliant water fountains and restrooms on the orchestra level. The Walnut also offers assisted listening devices with loop technology. For more accessibility info, call the box office at (215) 574-3550.
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