Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Edward Albee's iconic play gets the gut-wrenching production that it deserves.
George and Martha are at each other again in a searing revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Lyric Stage where they drag out their conflicting demons for nearly three hours of fearful recriminations. By the end of Edward Albee's evergreen drama about two marriages engulfed in past regrets and present dependency, the liquor cabinet is empty and the audience nearly as exhausted as the principal players. Steven Barkhimer and Paula Plum appear as George and Martha; Erica Spyres and Dan Whelton as Honey and Nick, their victims and guests.
The plot line is simple even if the characters and their relationships are not. The play opens at 2am after a reception for new faculty at the home of Martha's father, the longtime president of a small college in an unnamed New England town. George has been a professor in the history department for many years; Martha is a faculty wife and the self-proclaimed Princess Royal, albeit a wild card on campus.
Martha has invited a young couple, Honey and Nick, to their home for a nightcap, even though the hour is late. A four-hour rumpus ensues as George and Martha wage war with each other, bringing their guests into the battle along the way. All of them are liberally oiled after consuming vast quantities of alcohol. The arc of the party is punctuated by games that George and Martha enact: "Humiliate the host," "Hump the Hostess," and "Get the Guests," with rules of their own devising.
Director Scott Edmiston digs into the play's "lies and mendacity" — a quote from Tennessee Williams, to whom the young Albee was compared at the work's 1962 premiere. The tragicomic confrontations of Albee's characters fit perfectly into Edmiston's gift for coaching actors into the performances of their lives, while guiding them to timing the dialogue and staging exquisite twists of emotions. As a result, the cast does not disappoint, especially by Barkhimer and Plum as George and Martha.
In the showier role, at least at first, Plum is vulgar, feral, and self-indulgent until she reveals a needy side. She roams the stage like a caged beast, albeit one that has been captured by sublimated fears and insecurities. In contrast, Barkhimer comes on like a down-trodden creature, giving in to the outrageous demands of a tyrannical wife, but when he erupts in anger and revenge, he is fearful to behold. It's clear by the climax that he is in charge of this partnership, no matter how loudly she brays. Spyres as Honey, the cute, little "bunny" and Whelton as her protective husband (until he is not), make excellent foils for their host and hostess, with just the right suggestion of how they might age in a similar manner.
Scenic designer, Janie Howland's set of a messy, comfortable, but somewhat shabby home turns into fantasy at the end, enhanced by Karen Perlow's imaginative lighting scheme and Dewey Dellay's eerie sound score. Charles Schoonmaker's costumes help predict the behavior of each of the characters.
Albee's play is as much about the illusions that people must construct to survive the disappointments of their lives as it is about his conception of the true nature of marriage. Though more than 50 years have passed since the premiere of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and audiences have come to accept shocking material laid out onstage, Albee's bitter observations about the human condition and the failures of people to offer consolation to one another remain no less current for our time.