Wow! “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at the Arena

I remember years ago when I saw the Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor film of Edward Albee’s “Virginia Woolf”. Perhaps I was too young to appreciate it, perhaps Taylor and Burton overplayed their roles, I am not certain. But I remember a lot of embarrassing yelling and screaming and while I appreciated the script, I really wanted them to shut up. And I didn’t see the need to see the show again.

Then, years later, several months ago, I saw Terry Teachout’s review of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of “Virginia Woolf”, which was an absolute rave, especially of Tracy Letts as George. I was intrigued in part because he seemed so different from Richard Burton and in part because we had recently seen “Superior Donuts”, an extraordinary play by the very same Tracy Letts (who also, of course, wrote “August Osage County). How can one person have sufficient talent to write and perform at such a level?

The Steppenwolf production opened a week or so ago at Washington’s Arena Stage; we saw it last night. The play is over three hours long (three acts). It is funny and compelling at the same time. Every minute is wonderful.

George and Martha have been married over twenty years. He is an associate professor of history (who will never attain his professional goals) at a small New England college. Martha is the daughter of the president of the college. Both are frustrated and alcoholics. They appear to spend much (all?) of their time bickering with each other, slinging very caustic barbs at each other, moving to the cusp of total marital disaster, but always pulling back before they reach the abyss. It is a night of a reception for new faculty members. George and Martha arrive home at about 2 a.m. George is anxious to go to bed. Martha tells him he can’t do that, because they are having guests, a new member of the mathematics department and his wife, and they are coming over at any minute. And that her father told her that they had to treat them nicely.

The younger couple arrives – a handsome, debonair man, and a quiet, naive appearing woman. They appear as unhappy arriving at this late hour, as George does having them. Especially because George and Martha are engaged in their typical verbal sparring and Nick (that’s his name in the program – I don’t think the name is used in the script) feels he is getting involved in something that is none of his business. But they are encouraged to stay, they are plied with liquor, the George-Martha conversations take a turn for the worse and just when you think they’ve reached bottom, you learn that they can go lower yet.

Nick and Honey (is that her name, or just how she is identified in the program?) are at first voyeurs shocked by what they hear, but as time goes by, George and Nick get to spend some time together alone, and during that time, Nick tells George some of his family secrets, how it came about that he and Honey married, something he has never told anyone before. George tells some additional secrets to Nick as well.

When the women find out these revelations had been made, they become very upset, thinking themselves ignored and disrespected. The conversation reaches new depths, and strange parallels appear between the two couples. It becomes clear that this drama will not end well, and in a way that it won’t end at all. And so it goes.

Tracy Letts is, as Terry Teachout said, extraordinary, but so are the other cast members, especially Carrie Coon as Honey. I was surprised that, on a Saturday night, there were some open seats, probably 20-30 in the balcony of the medium size Kreeger Theatre. I recommend this play highly.

(Before the theater, we had supper at Jose Andres’ Next Stage restaurant. They have a long way to go before I’d recommend Next Stage.)

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