Such was the dichotomy of opinion that greeted Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? upon its Broadway debut in 1962. Forty years later, an aura of controversy still remains, perhaps helped by memories of tabloid royalty Liz and Dick as the warring Martha and George in the film version. But stage revivals have a way of reminding audiences why a work truly endures, and the Alley Theatre's current production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? clearly displays the qualities that keep the play alive and well -- a mesmerizing use of language, a profound sense of irony, and an oblique tenderness.
Albee turns 75 this March and the Alley is celebrating his birthday with Virginia Woolf on the Large Stage and the regional premiere of The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? on its downstairs Neuhaus Stage. Billed collectively as the "Albee Festival," these productions are the latest in a long association with the playwright that began in 1967 when A Delicate Balance opened the theater's 21st season. Since then, Albee has been the most produced playwright -- save Shakespeare -- at the Alley, which has the distinction of having offered two U.S. premieres of Albee works: Marriage Play in 1992 and The Play About the Baby in 2000.
The last time Virginia Woolf was seen at the Alley was in 1990, and Albee himself directed. This time, artistic director Gregory Boyd takes the reins and the result is a vital, robust production. If there is a flaw in the show, it is Boyd's tendency to sometimes overemphasize the laughs, especially in the first act. But the director has assembled a strong cast; as soon as Judith Ivey takes the stage and begins Martha's famous "What a dump!" speech, it's clear that Boyd has got the audience in the palm of his hand. Feisty, lusty, and ultimately vulnerable, the Tony Award-winning Ivey helps to center the show and hold the audience's attention throughout the play's running time of three-and-one-half hours.
Boyd has also scored in casting James Black as George. With his compact, almost fierce-looking body, the Alley resident company actor has a kind of primal presence that has served him well in such roles as the prison inmate Butch O'Fallon in Tennessee Williams' Not About Nightingales (a world premiere at the Alley) and Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; but he has been equally effective in quieter parts, including Oscar Wilde in The Invention of Love and Martin Dysart in Equus. As George, Black shows us a man with a violent temper always smoldering just underneath the surface; watching him move stealthily about the stage is like observing a walking time bomb in spectacles and tweeds.
Also bringing much presence to his role is Alley resident company actor Ty Mayberry as Nick. Sultry even in his ordinary black suit and tie, Mayberry's Nick makes the perfect target for Martha's lusty ambition. "You're right at the meat of things, baby," she says in Act I, and there probably wasn't a red-blooded woman in the audience who didn't agree. Aside from his physical allure, the actor does a good job of portraying Nick's essentially shallow nature. Listening to George's description of how far the young man can go by sleeping with "pertinent" faculty wives, Mayberry's Nick seems to be shrewdly calculating the value of his host's advice. Even his physical distance from his wife, Honey, is telling, especially in contrast to George and Martha's occasional displays of affection.
As Honey, Elizabeth Bunch gives more of an imitation than a performance. With her blonde wig and little-girl voice, she seems to want to be Sandy Dennis in the Virgina Woolf movie rather than the character Honey on stage. Still, she has her moments -- especially toward the end of the play, when Honey's despair and misery flow forth -- and her wild, drunken dancing in Act II provides considerable mirth.
What makes this production transcendent, though, is the play itself. Wickedly funny as much of his dialogue is, it's the counterpoint of the quiet moments that makes the play great. George's "bergin" speech; Martha's lines about freezing her tears in the ice box; her famous revelation that she has only and always loved George, the man "who is good to me and whom I revile"; the final "exorcism" -- oh, how Albee makes us listen!
And how he makes us think, too. As naturalistic as the play is in some respects, and for all the controversy its frank language and sexuality caused 40 years ago, the wonderful irony is that Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf? is a story of illusions and how they are sometimes more brutal than reality.