Theatre Hopkins' 'Woolf' is fearsome

March 04, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

A successful production of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" should make the audience feel as uncomfortable as the two guests who find themselves trapped in a three-hour, scorched-earth, drunken brawl of a late-night cocktail party.

And indeed, Theatre Hopkins' current production, under Suzanne Pratt's direction, creates the effect of being held hostage. It's an effect so palpable that, even knowing it was impossible, I kept wishing the guests, a clean-cut young couple named Nick and Honey, would manage to escape so the audience could also be freed of Albee's relentless torment.

Tormenting the audience, however, is not really what Albee is up to in this play -- although he does an excruciatingly effective job of it. "Get the Guests" is just one of the games that hosts George and Martha are playing.

In the end, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is not only about a severely warped marriage, it's about a hard-fought and painfully won reconciliation. And it is a tribute to Theatre Hopkins, and particularly to the moving portrayal by lead actress Carol Mason, that after all the shouting is done, the production convincingly conveys this bond.

The true nature of George and Martha's highly contentious marriage is evident almost from the start. Robert Riggs' soft-seeming George and Mason's hard, acerbic Martha may squabble like old pros, but their anger can readily turn to laughter. "Martha and I are merely exercising that's all we're merely walking what's left of our wits," George, a history professor, reassures Nick, the newest member of the small New England college faculty.

Nick and Honey are out of their league in this company, intellectually and emotionally. They are desperately ordinary; Steve Antonsen's Nick is the grown-up version of the all-American boy, and Molly Moores is his extremely perky and tipsy wife.

But Albee is exploring more than marital discord. Nick is a biology professor, and George lambastes him for working in genetic engineering. It's a field that George feels will create a universe of dulling sameness -- a field even more frightening 36 years after the play's debut.

Individuality and personal freedom are at stake here, and George and Martha are willing to fight for it -- literally -- with all they're worth. Consumed by self-loathing, they are both the best and the worst thing that ever happened to each other. Their marriage seems to be built on layers of verbal skirmishing and make-believe, but after those layers are stripped away, they will still have more passion in their lives than bland Nick and Honey will ever know.

Albee has reportedly said he chose the names "George" and "Martha" because he was writing about what happened to the founding fathers' revolutionary principles. Theatre Hopkins reiterates this theme in its program notes, and it's one the playwright had investigated in his previous play, "The American Dream." But it's also a theme with a more academic than dramatic ring, and whether or not it comes through, this production makes the play's narrower, more personal focus harrowing and affecting. That, in itself, is a noteworthy achievement.

'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'

Where: Theatre Hopkins, Merrick Barn, Johns Hopkins University

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2: 15 p.m. Sundays; through March 15

Tickets: $10 and $12

Call: 410-516-7159

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