'Virginia Woolf': adept war of the words

theater review

November 02, 2008|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

There's a reason that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? takes place in the enervating brown light of 2 a.m., as if viewed through a glass of brandy.

Outside the windows, everything is dark. Inside, it's not much brighter. The four characters have pushed beyond tired and inebriated to a stumbling exhaustion. As Nick, a young professor says, "After a while, you don't get any drunker, do you?"

In other words, they are at their most vulnerable. When the social order is overturned - when spouse attacks spouse, and hosts turn upon their guests - the four don't have a chance of protecting themselves.

Center Stage, which is mounting a superb production of Edward Albee's harrowing drama, hasn't tackled Virginia Woolf since 1974, when an fire burned the theater to the ground two hours after the opening-night performance. This time, all the fire is on stage.

Albee's profanity-laced masterpiece is set at a small New England college in 1962. George is a history professor whose career has stagnated, despite his being married to Martha, the blowsy daughter of the college's president. On the spur of the moment, Martha has invited a new faculty couple over for a nightcap: Nick, an arrogant, 28-year-old biology professor, and his insipid wife, Honey.

Albee cut his original work for the 2005 Broadway revival. While the evening remains a marathon - with two intermissions, it clocks in at 3 1/2 hours - the play is even more incisive than it was before.

Unlike the 1966 movie starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the action occurs entirely in George and Martha's living room, which heightens the claustrophobia. In addition, a scene has been cut in which George badgers Honey into admitting that she takes birth control pills. This is perhaps a nod to modern times. This Virginia Woolf also is mounted on a thrust stage with the audience seated on three sides. That increases the feeling of intimacy - and paradoxically the sense of threat. We peer at the actors from our haven of darkness like wild animals circling a campfire.

The talented director Ethan McSweeny elicits first-rate performances from his top-notch cast.

It is quite fascinating to watch alliances shift from moment to moment. A rare instance of kindness - Martha tells a lie to spare Nick's pride - is as unexpected and life-sustaining as an oasis in the desert.

The marvelous Deborah Hedwall portrays Martha as a woman who flaunts her sexuality but hides her intelligence. When Hedwall kneels next to a divan, searching for her shoes, every round inch of her behind is an insolent invitation. Behind Martha's good-time-gal facade, there's a world of fear.

Martha only appears to be the power in the marriage. Those "honors" really belong to George, and anyone who ever has met Albee even briefly, senses that this character is the author's stand-in. For George, every conversation is a contest that he tries to win by means of his considerable wit by deliberately misunderstanding his opponents and verbally yanking the rug from beneath their feet.

Actor Andrew Weems' slicked-back, thinning hair, his short, squat body and soft rasp are a protective coloration, designed to lure his prey into striking range. When the moment is right, Weems hurls an insult through the air like a blade, every syllable honed to maximum sharpness.

Honey is a somewhat thankless role. Actress Leah Curney accomplishes wonders with relatively little. When, late in the play, Honey's facade momentarily crumbles, Curney reveals a woman who is both more mean-spirited and far more interesting than the audience had suspected.

Finally, Erik Heger endows his portrayal of Nick with the slight goofiness of a former frat boy, which makes the character unexpectedly endearing.

Early in the evening, ticketholders at Center Stage reacted almost as if they were viewing a comedy, responding to every put-down with laughter. By the time the show had ended, there was nary a cough, a murmur, a rustled program. Audience members barely dared shift position. It's as though we, and not Albee's characters, were on the hot seat.

if you go

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs through Nov. 30 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Show times: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Sundays. $10-$60. 410-332-0033 or centerstage.org.

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