Winding Road Theatre Ensemble
Don’t be afraid of 'Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf'
This production mines a laugh-out-loud comedic vein
Some great works of modern theater are more important than they are enjoyable. Grim dysfunctional family dramas like “Death of a Salesman” (1949), “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1956), or “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (1962), require an audience resilient (or masochistic) enough for the toxic anger and venom spewed by their characters.
Now you can stop avoiding Edward Albee’s game-changing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” thanks to Winding Road Theatre. Directed by Terry Erbe, this production mines a laugh-out-loud comedic vein that leavens the overall heaviness of the sprawling, drunken three-hour sparring match.
Most know the work by reputation or from the 1966 movie version, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor at the height of their fame as a couple, as well as Sandy Dennis and George Segal, as their hapless guests. Tucsonans may have seen the national touring company presentation starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin (no relation) at the TCC Music Hall several years ago.
In the play, George, a history professor at a small New England college, and his wife, Martha, six years his senior and the daughter of the college’s president, come home from a party hosted by Martha’s father. They have invited a new faculty member, Nick, and his wife, Honey, over for a nightcap.
Albee conjured an abusive, raunchy, game-playing one-upsmanship relationship between George and Martha unlike anything seen on the stage before. We watch as George and Martha drag the unsuspecting Nick and Honey into their nasty domestic vortex. Casual conversations are converted into weapons. Bared-teeth aggression is covered by the thinnest of smiles. Sexual innuendos abound. A constant flow of booze lubricates and complicates the proceedings.
Albee’s play was scathing 50 years ago, on the cutting edge at exposing the cruel and hurtful games people play. Its obscene language (before the '60s Free Speech Movement) and sexual frankness cost it the Pulitzer Prize: Although selected, no award for drama was made that year.
These days, however, there’s more sex and relational bitterness in any given episode of “Two and a Half Men.”
Erbe stages the play in the round of the Temple of Music and Art’s upstairs Cabaret Theatre, much like the boxing match that it is. By eliminating the fourth wall’s dominance, movement flows freer, giving the seemingly chaotic events a more natural feel. It also converts the audience into voyeurs as they surround the actors on all sides.
Erbe pushes towards the comic, rather than the borderline psychosis that the play originally explored. Especially in the first act, the caustic banter has a playfulness that would have been unavailable in the '60s. Here George and Martha are no longer the monsters they once appeared to be, but just another weird, old couple screwing with other people’s heads. In addition to being more approachable, this rendition gives us a measure of how far tolerance in relationships has come.
Lesley Abrams gave a brassy, self-assured performance as Martha. She hurled insults with a steely glint in her eye and an inscrutable smile on her face through mercurial changes of mood and tone. When the going got rough, she deftly retreated with the brilliance of Ali’s rope-a-dope, hoping to throw George off-balance. She cooed, cuddled and manipulated Nick with sweet 1960s cougar moves. Abrams gave a complex, subtle performance that exposed her character down to the bone.
Bill Epstein as George provided Abrams with both an adept foe and a devious co-conspirator. Epstein, a University of Arizona English professor by day, is slightly old for the role, which calls for a man in his forties, and most importantly, six years younger than Martha. Because aging is one of the battlefields for Martha and George, this visual anomaly might confuse.
Epstein has some idiosyncratic gestures and body language that can become distracting if overused. This was evidenced earlier this season, when he played the title role in Shakespeare’s “Lear” at Beowulf Alley Theatre, his repeated gestures diminished in power by the end of the play. Here, however, Erbe keeps him in motion and playing from all angles to great benefit.
Despite Martha’s low opinion of his prowess, George must demonstrate that he can still land verbal punches at will to be a viable competitor as a sparring partner. In a critical pas de deux with Nick, Epstein blended an old fighter’s skill and confidence with a tinge of wide-eyed fear and desperation at facing a younger, perhaps stronger challenger. .
Robert Anthony Peters and Amy Erbe (Terry’s wife) gave solid performances as the younger couple. Peters starts out collegial, allows himself to be puffed up during his interactions with George and Martha, then ends shaken and shrunken by his, umm, floppy response to Martha’s blatant seduction. Erbe, as Honey, the weakest physically of the foursome, looks appropriately frail from the heavy drinking; her character spends considerable time off-stage, where she’s described as curled up on the bathroom floor with a bottle of brandy.
Recast as a quirky comedy, rather than a deep psycho-analytical study, the answer to the question, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” can now be, “Nobody.”