By Edward Albee
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
At Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Tracy Lett’s commands the stage in Albee’s 1962 Tony Award winning drama
After many years, Edward Albee, ever the control freak concerning who gets the rights and who is cast in his plays, finally has given Steppenwolf Theatre permission to mount one of his plays. It helped that Pam MacKinnon, one of Albee’s favorite directors, is directing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Utilizing Todd Rosenthal’s large elaborate set depicting an academic’s home in the 60’s New England, Virginia Woolf has the space for all the toxic, stinging verbal games that pits George and Martha with their newbie guests, Nick and Honey into a dink-fueled battle of wits. The current production at Steppenwolf Theatre is both gripping and acute containing all the verbal excess that Albee penned as he presented a surrealistic and timeless tale of twisted co-dependency and martial dysfunction. Combining the inane, the vulgar and the poetic, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? focuses on an embittered middle aged academic couple who gradually draw a younger couple, fresh from the Midwest, into their nasty games of marital love and hate. The play is a dramatic bloodsport with words and liquor rather than weapons. Many find the play’s caustic wit and complete lack of sentimentality disturbing. I was struck at how long-in-the-tooth Woolf has become. Maybe, it has long lost its luster except maybe as a vehicle actor’s showcase?
Originally titled, The Exorcism, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was Edward Albee’s first full length play after his success with the one-act, The Zoo Story. It premiered on Broadway in 1962, ran for 664 performances and garnered Tony Awards and was voted a Pulitzer Prize winner until a member vetoed it because it was “filthy” (sexual content and language).
Full of wry bitterness with a bizarre sense producing black humor both funny and tragic, Virginia Woolf’s dialogue is razor-sharp and facetious, often at the expense of anther’s feelings. It is a deeply cynical play about the lack of human communication in the most basic of relationships: marriage. Disappointment and melancholy overpower the characters as they continue to place their faith in their imaginary worlds. Dissatisfaction and depression grips them.
Albee attacks American optimism and he questions the American way of life where sentiments and relationships have lost meaning and where life has become one long game of competition where martial relationships are built on false accusations and spiteful indictments, that have no real weight to them.
George and Martha have isolated themselves from each other by escaping into playing games and creating fantasies that only reinforce their loneliness and despair.
While Martha is usually the stronger, more vicious gamer player, Amy Morton plays Martha more as a reluctant participant than an instigating gamer despite her moving the game into the world of their son. Madison Direks plays Nick effectively as does Carrie Coon play Honey garnering several funny moments.
But Steppenwolf Theatre’s Woolf is dominated by the commanding performance by Tracy Letts as George. In this production, George move back and forth from the weak insecure academic to the forcible, angry gamer player whose attacks hit home toward Martha, Nick and Honey. It is amazing how Letts without changing any of Albee’s words, has raised George into the stronger gamer thus making this George the dominant character in the dysfunctional drama. Tracey Letts is the main reason to see this aging play. His tour de force performance is one of the best of this year.
At Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL, call 312, 335-1650, www.steppenwolf.org, tickets $20 – $75, Tuesday thru Sundays at 7:30 pm, matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 3 pm, select Wednesday matinees at 2 pm