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Albee for the Best!

D.C.'s Arena Stage Theater devotes two months to a thorough, must-see exploration of the work of Edward Albee.

Edward Albee
(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)
Visitors in the coming weeks to Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage Theater -- housed in the magnificent new Mead Center for American Theater -- can take home something a little extra-special: a black t-shirt that says "Team Edward." However, if you're expecting the visage of Edward from the Twilight series of films to adorn the garment -- aka actor Robert Pattinson -- think again. The face you'll be wearing belongs to none other than the great American playwright Edward Albee, who is being honored by the theater with an Edward Albee Festival through April 25.

This remarkable -- and well-deserved -- celebration has four distinct components: Pam MacKinnon's revelatory and scathingly funny production of Albee's masterpiece, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, co-produced by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company (where it premiered last fall); Mary B. Robinson's accomplished production of Albee's At Home at the Zoo, which consists of the playwright's groundbreaking 1959 one-act The Zoo Story and its recently written prequel Homelife; a series of free staged readings of more than 20 of Albee's plays (and presented in two areas of the Mead Center usually off-limits to the public, including the gorgeous Molly Smith Study); and a benefit on March 14 to honor Albee, featuring award-winning actress Kathleen Turner, among other notables.

"Edward Albee is our greatest living writer; he's had an extraordinary influence on the American theater since the first time he burst on the scene more than 50 years ago," says Molly Smith, Arena Stage's artistic director, in explaining her impetus for the festival. "He's influential not only with audiences but has also inspired legions of writers. He is radical as far as his experimentation in form, he is unusually deep as far as the characters that he creates, and he is wide-ranging as far as the worlds that he taps into. He is the original provocateur. And what could be more extraordinary than audiences hearing the majority of his plays read and being able to see Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and At Home at the Zoo, which are two of his most important works."

For his part, Albee is being publicly sanguine about the attention. When asked by TheaterMania, "What does it mean to you to have so much of your work celebrated in a two-month festival and to be honored by Arena Stage with the American Artist Award?" he simply answered: "Yes is better than no."

Nonetheless, he has been very involved in the festival, and has already attended at least one of the productions. "We've had the benefit of working very closely with him for these shows," says David Dower, Arena's associate artistic director. "We also developed the strategy together for how to approach the festival of readings, and in several cases we are working from Mr. Albee's suggestions for directors. From the beginning he was a supporter of the plan to involve other local theater companies in this festival and he made himself available to meet with all those directors to talk about approaches to the plays."

Carrie Coon, Tracy Letts, Madison Dirks, and Amy Morton in
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
(© Michael Brosilow)
Albee also told TheaterMania he was involved with the casting of the mainstage productions, and he certainly should be proud of what these actors have accomplished. In Virginia Woolf, Tracy Letts -- best known to many as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of August: Osage County -- gives a surprising and surprisingly towering performance as George, the seemingly meek New England college professor finally pushed to his limits by the life-long battle with his shrewish, unhappy wife Martha (Amy Morton), the daughter of the college's president. Unlike in some other productions of the play, Letts' George truly dominates the proceedings, and while his capacity for menace and malevolence is clear from the get-go, his final coup de grace is nevertheless shattering.

Morton's take on Martha is equally unusual; for one thing, despite her copious drinking, she never really seems inebriated. Her Martha is a woman who not only thinks she's firmly in control of the situation -- but truly appears to be -- so it's even more devastating when she finally realizes she's the loser in all the games she expects to win. The actress also brings a rare vulnerability to the part, as well as a healthy dose of self-awareness. When she attempts to seduce the studly young professor Nick (a fine turn by Madison Dirks), Morton's Martha knows that her attraction derives from her position in the college -- and not her sex appeal. Rounding out the quartet of players is Carrie Coon, who is nothing short of pitch-perfect as Nick's mousy wife, Honey, and who garners both laughter and sympathy from the audience.

The first act of At Home in the Zoo provides a fascinating contrast to Virginia Woolf, as Albee continues to examine the conundrums of marriage. Jeff Allin and Colleen Delany deliver precise performances as Peter and Ann, the upper-middle-class couple for whom an ordinary Sunday afternoon becomes an unexpected crossroads.

Allin is particularly well-complemented in The Zoo Story by James McMenamin, who hands in a dead-on portrayal of Jerry, a "transient" who engages Peter in what turns out to be a not-so-innocent conversation that alters both of their lives forever. While one can only imagine how audiences a half-century ago reacted to this now-seminal work, the denouement remains shocking (to those who have never seen or read the play) even in jaded-old 2011.

Go team!


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