Lyric Stage's "Virginia Woolf": Capping a Tough Night

Paula Plum, Dan Whelton, Erica Spyres & Steven Barkheimer in
 "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

In an initially pitch black theater, Lyric Stage Company presents Edward Albee's controversial 1962 play Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, beginning with the braying entrance of Martha (Paula Plum), then mimicking Bette Davis' iconic line, “what a dump!” that sets the tone for the battles to come. The play was considered shocking for its time (and still packs a wallop today). Though it won the Tony Award for Best Play and ran for 664 performances, it was denied the Pulitzer that year (no prize was awarded, despite the Pulitzer advisory board's expressed recommendation), both for its language and subject matter. The main title of the play is a reference to a song from the Disney 1933 classic cartoon short, Three Little Pigs: “Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”, which someone had sung earlier at a party that preceded the action of this play. Albee said he had seen the phrase in a bar scrawled on a wall. He also subtitled each of the three acts of this work: Act I is named “Fun and Games”, as a middle-aged couple entertain a young couple they have just met with a lengthy night cap; Act II is titled “Walpurgisnacht”, after the pagan feast on the eve of the feast day of St. Walpurga, eighth century German abbess, also known as May Day, when a rendezvous of witches occurs; Act III, “the Exorcism”, pretty much speaks for itself, as the alcohol-fueled long night's journey into day progresses.

Albee was to become known for his precision, even in his punctuation, and a talent for solitude in his own life. The art he liked best was what he called “tough”, that which had weight and value. In this play, he presents a married couple artfully disguising their own disappointments, as well as the ugliness and bitterness of their relationship, by sublimating in illusions. By questioning the difference between reality and deception, he virtually destroys the conventional concept of a stereotypical nuclear family of breadwinner, housewife and two obedient children. Those only familiar with the 1966 film version with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor will find some surprises here, especially in some back stories. In a small New England college town, New Carthage, history professor George (Steven Barkhimer) finds that his wife Martha, six years his junior, has been asked by her father, president of the college, to be nice to a newly arrived couple, handsome biology professor Nick (Dan Whelton) and his mousey wife Honey (Erica Spyres), so she has dutifully invited them back for that night cap.

Over the course of their facade-stripping encounter, we come to learn, among other points, about infertility and professional failure to live up to expectations, why Honey and Nick got married, why they don't have children, why Martha (married once before when very young and “revirginized”) is bent on seducing younger men, why George keeps his past so hidden, and ultimately why George and Martha have a secret lie that both have come to believe in. We also discover that both Martha and Honey come from families with dominating father figures. Albee famously told one actress on her opening night as Martha only one note: “remember one thing: she loved her father, passionately”. As is true of Albee plays in general, there is an enigma at the center, not to be revealed here, but more explicit in this play than in most of his others. We should consider how fortunate we are to be able to experience this brilliant work in such a near-perfect production, especially with (but not limited to) such an extraordinary ensemble.

Barkhimer is spot on, Whelton a perfect foil, and Spyres is as excellent as one might expect from her repertoire of prior roles (if way too attractive to be considered remotely mousey). But it's the plum role of Martha that makes or breaks a production of this work, and here we find real gold. Plum has been wonderful in so many other works, but has never been better than her larger-than-life role here. Just to hear her toss off such zingers as “I swear, if you existed, I'd divorce you” is chillingly reason enough to see this production, but all four principals are superbly Directed by Scott Edmiston, (though with some overlapping dialogue that seems not in keeping with Albee's rhythms). On the creative side, there is finely detailed Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland (providing a very lived-in, battle-worn home), Costume Design by Charles Shoonmaker (notably Plum's outfits that become increasingly revealing), Lighting Design by Karen Perlow (with the exception of two spotlighted soliloquies that briefly break the otherwise realistic tone of the play), and Sound Design by Dewey Dellay.

Albee once posed the question: who's afraid of living a life without false illusions? In his depiction of some of the fun and games played (as with “humiliate the host” and “get the guest”), there are landmines at virtually every turn. Even such relatively minor details as Honey's drunken reaction of peeling labels off a liquor bottle draws a barbed response from George. Yet Albee infuses the work with bitter humor, as he had once declared that “almost any art has humor... (and) most art has a sense of absurdity”. The playwright, whom we lost just last year, would undoubtedly be pleased with what is quite possibly the finest work from this estimable company in decades, and a bout (an apt word indeed) not soon forgotten. One word of advice: run, don't stagger, to get tickets to this breathtakingly wonderful work.

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