Review: Albee's 'Virginia Woolf' gets searing revival

Arena Stage presents brilliant Steppenwolf Theatre production

March 10, 2011|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

George and Martha, America's first couple of dysfunction, are back onstage, biting and scratching and spitting their way to the truth in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." As usual, they take no prisoners.

These warring spouses come to life with devastating force in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of Edward Albee's searing play, presented by Arena Stage as part of a comprehensive, two-month Albee festival.

When the brilliant revival of "Virginia Woolf" with Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin appeared on Broadway in 2005 (it played the Kennedy Center a couple of years later), another benchmark staging appearing so soon didn't seem very likely. But this version, directed with razor-sharp insight by Pam MacKinnon, is every bit as effective.

In one way, the production may have a slight advantage. Without a well-known star like Turner as unavoidable eye-magnet and expectation-builder, all the attention is immediately directed here to the play itself right from the start. The result, especially in the intimacy of Arena's Kreeger Theater, is all the more involving, maybe even a little more frightening.

It feels at first like eavesdropping, rather than witnessing a performance, so un-theatrical is the initial appearance of Amy Morton as Martha and Tracy Letts as George. The whole opening business — Martha's obsessive attempt to remember the origin of Bette Davis' movie line "What a dump," George's indifference to the matter — unfolds in a disarmingly matter-of-fact way.

Instead of feeling the heat of Albee's two famously bitter antagonists as soon as they come through the door of their New England home (Todd Rosenthal designed the finely detailed, comfortably rumpled set), we sense just a slightly cranky, long-married couple. There are even flashes of affection between the two — slight flashes, mind you, so brief you could miss them if you blinked, but they're real enough in the actors' gestures and shading of lines.

That allows us to sense, early on, the shred of attraction left between George and Martha, the bond beneath the bitterness that keeps them stuck together. And this, in turn, allows the subsequent eruptions of hostility and resentment and revenge to register with greater visceral force, and the very end of the play to achieve greater poignancy.

Letts may be more widely known as the Pulitzer Prize-, Tony Award-winning playwright of "August: Osage County," but he's also a veteran actor. He gives an extraordinary portrayal of George. Every line seems to uncover another layer of the long-oppressed, long-suppressed character. Letts gives us a George who's so gentle and slyly, dryly witty that it takes a while to realize just how postal he can go.

Morton's Martha is as tough, sure and cruel as you're expecting, but also softer. Many of the insults she hurls at George seem all the more horrid because they aren't brayed, but delivered conversationally, so the acid starts to sting like an aftertaste.

The actress does not play up the inner-floozy side of Martha as the long night of dare and double-dare unfolds. When she makes her moves on Nick, the biology teacher who stops by with his timid wife Honey, nothing threatens to spill out of this Martha's neckline, yet the sexiness is palpable.

And once the domestic battlefield has finally cleared, the horrid games ended, Morton conveys the emotional nakedness of defeat with almost unbearable vulnerability. When she says "I'm cold," don't be surprised if you feel a chill, too.

Carrie Coon gives a rather endearing performance as Honey, trembling girlishly when referring to her husband's "very firm body," and revealing each additional reaction to unwisely consumed brandy with delicious nuance.

As Nick, Madison Dirks does a fine job of showing both the cocky young teacher who thinks he's so much better than his drunken, quarrelsome hosts, and the pathetic man beneath that veneer.

During the deceptive lull after one of the many skirmishes, George tells Nick: "It gets bouncy around here." In this production, each ricochet from all those darting illusions and truths registers as deeply out in the theater as on the stage.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" runs through April 10 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. S.W. in Washington. Call 202-488-3300 or go to arenastage.org.

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