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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Actor-playwright Tracy Letts dominates Steppenwolf Theatre Company's powerful and engaging production of Edward Albee's great American drama.

By Chicago
Amy Morton and Tracy Letts in
 Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
(© Michael Brosilow)
Amy Morton and Tracy Letts in
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
(© Michael Brosilow)
Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? may be an odd choice for the holiday season, but is a complete, powerful and engaging evening of laughter and psychological horror.

One of the great American dramas of the 20th century, it concerns a New England college couple, iconically named George and Martha, locked in a devastating love-hate relationship after 25 years of childless marriage. On this particular 1960-ish night, which begins at 2 AM and ends at dawn, they entertain a young, new professor and his wife, also childless. A great deal of dirty linen comes out in a wash of alcohol, and no one emerges unscarred.

Director Pam MacKinnon, an experienced Albee hand, is wise enough not to overindulge in heavy theatrics or fancies of staging, relying instead on a gifted cast and the soundness of Albee's witty (but never precious) dialogue and instinct for the jugular. With momentary exceptions, MacKinnon guides her actors and gets out of their way to let them act.

The play is dominated by actor-playwright Tracy Letts (of August: Osage County fame) as late-forties George, the washed-up and tired out son-in-law of the college president, who has disappointed his father-in-law and his wife by not rising in the family business; a fact Martha never lets George forget. George and Martha give as good as they get, but Letts' command of the stage really puts George in charge.

Even with a female director, the not-so-latent misogyny of the work is more than apparent. Martha is a man-eater, a ball-buster who, having consumed George, goes after the young stud professor drunk in her living room, and humiliates him. Under these circumstances, George comes across as more long-suffering than nefarious, although there's more than enough blame to go around.

It's unfair to say that Letts is supported by a fine cast as this is an ensemble work. Rather, he is first among equals sharing the stage with the incomparable Amy Morton (now with a trace of gray hair as a voluptuous Martha), Carrie Coon (slim-hipped faculty wife Honey) and Madison Dirks (a sexy Nick in a close-fitting 1960's suit, but trimmer than the muscular 185 lbs. ascribed to him in the script).

Todd Rosenthal's elaborate and vast box set provides substantial physical substance for the aggressive goings-on. It's the picture-perfect first floor interior of a late Victorian townhouse, heavy with Tudor-like oak trim and paneling. Comfortable but disheveled, it perfectly reflects the careful accommodation George and Martha have achieved in their lives, right down to the hideously ugly but cozy sofa and overstuffed chair.

You'll wish you never came to George and Martha's house, but you'll be happy you saw this production. At a running time of three hours, it's long and grueling, so go well-rested.


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