Arguably, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of Edward Albee’s most (if not the most) accessible plays, at least on its face. A late night “party” of four in which George’s vicious, castrating wife Martha invites a new faculty couple over for a few drinks, turns into an all-night dog fight, barely concealed by the veneer of polite behavior. Set in the midst of New England Academia, at an Ivy League University, Virginia Woolf sends Nick, a new Biology teacher, and his mousey wife Honey (Robin Clayton) into the merciless lair of George and Martha. Martha and George are a middle-aged couple grown far too comfortable with thrashing one another, while Nick is the Adonis of the Biology Department, intelligent but ultimately shallow. The younger couple (well, Nick, actually) makes the mistake of confusing George and Martha’s sparring for harmless banter. George is in love with his own pontificating and rhetoric, and Martha has a kind of tough dame charm, but the vitriolic pair are just warming up.
George (and Albee) make much of Nick’s godlike beauty and background in Biology to address the idea of eugenics, though that word is never used. Just as true today as it was in 1962, exquisite, ageless beauty eclipses everything else. You can lack talent, experience, depth, even charm, but if you’re gorgeous the world will build you a marble temple. No one is more painfully aware of this than George, who hints (none too subtly) at a comparison between Nick’s Aryan appeal and the Nazi thirst for creating a master race. Gradually, George uncovers Nick’s utter lack of character and waits for his opportunity to go for Nick’s jugular. To be fair, Nick (Brandon Loera) dismisses George’s attempts at man-bonding pretty early on.
Martha (Rose Ann Holman) is the daughter of the University President, and though she may be 50 + and zaftig, she is still voluptuous and attractive. What Albee describes as the “earth mother.” Because no man, including George, could ever live up to the pressure of being married to the President’s daughter, she and her dad treat him with contempt and nasty mockery. Her flirtations with Nick are not remotely subtle, and she simply assumes that wife Honey is too dim to pick up on it. Throughout the evening Martha takes sadistic digs at George’s self-esteem, gleefully berating him for his countless failures and lack of pride. Martha is shameless and audacious, goading George with no sense of proportion or decency.
Edward Albee has always basked in his extravagance of language, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? aside from being a detailed depiction of a long-married couple, feeding off each other’s humiliation, is a critique of vapid American values. George (Seth Johnston) a brilliant, witty, Ph.D. is threatened by a Biology teacher simply because he’s handsome and virile. As they explain to Nick the weasel, “You’re either a Stud or a Houseboy.” Nothing in-between. You’d certainly think that in an institute of higher learning, looks would count for very little, but injecting Nick into the mix only throws George and Martha’s wretched cosmos into further chaos. Why does George stay with Martha? Why do Nick and Honey continue to endure this succession of degrading blows until the sun comes up? Why does Martha despise George for his tenderness?
The cast is brave, adept, dogged, heroic, deeply involved. Like The Lion in Winter, and August, Osage County, this content is exhausting under the best of conditions. The two key roles were replaced a week before opening, through no one’s fault. These things happen. So all this means that yes, there are a few problems, though none of them fatal. One rarely sees Virginia Woolf staged (at least around here) because frankly, it’s like trying to land Moby Dick with a fishing pole. Even if you do everything right. Albee indulges his eccentricities like nobody else (genius is allowed, I suppose) and the script is a constant hopscotch of tone and shtick. I have always admired Onstage for its daring, vision and professionalism. Bring a flask and go spend the evening at Onstage’s dazzling, breathtaking Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Onstage in Bedford presents Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Playing September 2nd-18th, 2016. 2819 Forest Ridge Drive, Bedford, TX 76021. (817) 354-6444. www.onstageinbedford.com