Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
by Edward Albee
Directed by Sara Logan
Performed by Little Theatre of Manchester at Cheney Hall through March 3
It is thoughtful that the folks at Cheney Hall waited until the day after Valentine's Day to begin performances of Edward Albee's classic Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A corrosive and embittered portrait of a marriage, this turbo-charged drama is the perfect antidote to cure those who get misty-eyed at the thought of matrimonial bliss. Little Theatre of Manchester makes a daring choice to open their season with this unsettling 3-and-a-half-hour growling beast of a play, but it is a risk that pays off for the performers, for the theatre, and for the audience.
Although over 50 years old, Virginia Woolf is hardly ready to go quietly into the retirement home of chestnuts that populate most stages of community theatres. The play was Edward Albee's first full-length foray onto Broadway and established him immediately as a ferocious, vital and unpredictable writer. Inarguably the most important living American playwright, Albee's work often finds a home on professional stages, but rarely on amateur seasons. The production, primarily the performances, on view at Cheney Hall hardly feels amateurish.
The set-up for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is surprisingly simple. Martha, the middle-aged daughter of a college president, invites a fresh-faced professor Nick and his dippy wife Honey back to her home for some late-night drinks. The young couple has no idea they are walking into an unlikely and ugly game of cat-and-mouse played between Martha and her husband George, a miserable professor at the same college. Like two scorpions jabbing and stinging at one another, George and Martha have moved way beyond love into an alcohol-fueled, venomous inter-dependence that threatens to poison everything in its path, including their two unwitting party guests.
Director Sara Logan keeps the production lean and simple, focusing on the various operatic interplays that range from solos to the full quartet. The performances range from good to excellent, allowing the play to shine through. Despite the third act's descent into 60s semi-abstraction, the play still maintains its power in Logan's interpretation. There are a few moments, particularly the Act 1 closer finding George shlumped in a corner, that feel weak, but overall the play maintains its musculature.
The secondary couple in the play, Nick and Honey, are portrayed by Jim Power and Trish Urso. Power, although seemingly a little old for his part, manages to keep his Nick from feeling like a wet noodle. He maintains enough bite that he can believably keep apace with George and Martha, while holding onto the character's undercurrents of frustration. Urso, at times flaky and at other times surprisingly aware, modulates her character enough to avoid becoming a one-dimensional twit. Her descent into boozy oblivion is admirable, although her performance at times feels a little mannered.
LTM veteran Mike Zizka's performance is smart and accomplished, if flawed. His take on George is permeated with the role's inherent intelligence. Clearly, George feels his life to be a Greek tragedy as evidenced by the play's setting in the fictional town of New Carthage and his liberal references to Parnassus and Crete. Like Zeus, George's life is complicated by his smart, flinty Hera of a wife. Zizka unfortunately does not completely harness the bile coursing through George to make him quite an even match for the seismic performance of his mate. His sublimated rage never exactly feels terrifying when it reaches its full, vindictive boil.
Debi Freund is, in a word, revelatory in the role of Martha. I have had the pleasure of seeing Ms. Freund in several performances at LTM and beyond, but she completely and absorbingly disappears in the skin of this complex and childlike harridan. If the rest of the production was not up to snuff, I would say her performance was worth the price of admission alone. She is devastatingly funny, sexy and snarling and, at the end, simply devastating.
The design elements of the production are the biggest shortcoming. The generic set and costumes betray very little sense of character or of the 1960s milieu. The lighting is far too intense for the duration of the play, adding little to the late-night setting of the action. The music interludes at the beginning of the acts are too sedate for such an angry and funny work.