Theater Review: The Lyric Stage Company is not “Afraid of Virginia Woolf”

Edward Albee’s bitter masterwork is a tough nut for a company to crack as well as a hard play to watch.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee. Directed by Scott Edmiston. Staged by the Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA, through February 12.

Paula Plum and Steven Barkhimer in the Lyric Stage production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." Photo by Mark S. Howard.

Paula Plum and Steven Barkhimer in the Lyric Stage production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Photo by Mark S. Howard.

By Kamela Dolinova

In his seminal study on marriage, psychologist John Gottman concluded that the more often during a therapy session a husband or wife rolled their eyes, sucked their teeth, said something degrading, or undermined their partner, the more likely they were to be divorced within a year. If that is true, what are we to make of George and Martha’s contempt for each other? They are the ur-unhappy-couple of American theatre. Why hasn’t this go-for-the-jugular couple broken up long before the 23-year mark? Somehow the heaving, listing battleship of their marriage cranks on, taking on water (or rather, gin) but refusing to sink.

Edward Albee’s bitter masterwork is a tough nut for a company to crack as well as a hard play to watch. Clocking in at three hours with two intermissions, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an internecine marathon – run barefoot in a hurricane. Even Mike Nichols’ celebrated 1966 film, at a mere two hours eleven minutes, suffers from slow pacing, coupled with nigh-fetishistically grim cinematography. Nichols leans on every ugly domestic moment, which makes sense: the play intends to shock and trap its audiences, doing all but pinning their eyes open A Clockwork Orange-style and forcing them to see the depths of despair beneath the veneer of all-American, 1950’s family life. The play’s action is about initiation into the depths: George and Martha spend the majority of the first act getting their new young “friends,” Nick and Honey, to stay and watch while the older couple destroys itself. It doesn’t take long, though, for the handsome young square and his mousy wife to become seduced by the lurid action.

Luckily, the new production at Lyric Stage has much the same effect on audience members – pinning us, as it were, and sucking us into the action. Scott Edmiston’s powerful direction avoids Albee’s static quagmire through the use of light, almost frantic pacing; rather than letting every insult land full-force, or dwelling on the hair-raisingly pathetic moments, he lets the cast speed through, or swerve, from beat to beat. This is not so much a marriage as a sinking ship but a car careening out of control.

That isn’t to say that Albee’s script isn’t its usual oppressive, uncomfortable self. Only that this version brings out more of its sardonic laughter, makes the characters more human, and makes us care – quite a bit – about what happens to these old lovers and brutal enemies after the curtain falls. The project is aided by a unified and meaningful stage design, a detailed space that makes George and Martha’s house feel like a fifth character. This dwelling breathes down everyone’s necks, insisting that its dark secrets be discharged. Janie Howland’s set is a living room where all of the angles feel just slightly off: there are never enough seats for everyone to sit at the same time without getting uncomfortably close or taking a power-down position on a footstool.

Karen Perlow’s lighting design closes in at times, putting tense moments in a kind of cinematic closeup and then letting up just before the tension breaks and another character’s entrance changes up the mood. Dewey Dellay brackets the acts with frantic free jazz, announced with horn blasts that suggest calls to prayer or hunting horns or both; at times he underscores the action with subtle music that sneaks up inside you, spiking your heart rate. At times, the design choices are a touch too strong and “on the nose”: for example, there’s the disappearing walls in the third act, and the shrink to a two-face-wide spot for the final moments. The latter would be better experienced, perhaps, in the full light of day that is confronting the characters. But, for the most part, this team creates a perfect space in which this drama can unfold.

“Unreel” might be the more precise word. Steven Barkhimer’s George hooks Martha and others with his sadistic fishing line, expertly baiting, casting, and reeling with the infinite patience of a long-married angler. Paula Plum’s Martha begins the evening in a more rarified, artificial space, which is appropriate given that she is the most performative and self-deluded of the protagonists. Both enter the house, not like two fighters ready for a bout, but as two people who are about to play the same game they’ve been playing for twenty years. They circle each other, they dance and skip through the lines, they shoot throwaways under their breaths and, when one of them scores a particularly good shot, they laugh together. In the first few moments of the show, Barkhimer and Plum achieve something remarkable: they manage to show us this couple’s love and passion for each other, twisted and buried as it is beneath the rubble of so much contempt.

Plum, Whelton, Spyres, Barkhimer. Photo by Mark S. Howard.

Paula Plum, Dan Whelton, Erica Spyres, and Steven Barkhimer in the Lyric Stage Company production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Photo by Mark S. Howard.

Then the evening’s main attraction, Nick and Honey (played by Dan Whelton and Erica Spyres) appear behind the door George smilingly swings wide, just as Martha is hurling her first f-bomb of the night. From this point on, the show is off to the three-ring circus. George and Martha use the young couple as a pair of funhouse mirrors: they are a way to examine their own ugliness as well as hapless witnesses and accomplices to George and Martha’s “total war.” No one is left unscathed. Whelton’s Nick is very fine: he brings a vigor, sexiness, and darkness to a character who is generally a bit underdeveloped. And Spyres does heroic work as Honey, rejecting the usual ditzy act and making her haunted, funny, and somehow canny and credulous at once. (“Keep going, I love familiar stories,” she confides to George as he tears apart her and Nick’s marriage right in front of them. Instead of being a naive fool, too drunk to know what’s happening, Spyres delivers this line darkly, knowingly, as a comforting prelude to the inevitable.) Rather than serving as target practice for George and Martha’s salvos, these actors complicate things on the firing range, providing veterans Barkhimer and Plum with formidable prey.

Not that they need much encouragement. In the end, a production of this show lives or dies on Martha and George, and these two nail it. Barkhimer’s George is vulnerable, whip-smart, bitter, and oh-so tired; his tragedy is that he is as wrapped up in the poisonous fantasies of the marriage as Martha is. The insults he hurls at her seem all the crueler because they are automatic; yet this, too, reveals how inextricably entwined they are, caught in a death spiral. Plum’s Martha is everything she needs to be: charismatic, sexy, shameless, mean as hell and, of course, as she repeats in a late scene, “sad, sad, sad.” Together, the two exude the aura of being convincingly long-married, so weary and wary and deeply knowing about each other. It helps, I’m sure, that the two performers have shared the stage so often.

Simon Fanshawe, in a Guardian article cited by associate artistic director A. Nora Long in the program’s tribute to Albee (who died in September, 2016), notes how the 1998 revival of Virginia Woolf starring David Suchet and Diana Rigg “emerged as a very funny play. In fact a love story.” It feels that way here as well: George and Martha’s ceaseless barbs and cruel manipulations are the playful stratagem that keep their marriage going; they claw deep into each other, struggling to uncover the love that lies beneath all the self-deception and disappointment. And, after the final, shattering revelation is disclosed, as the guests float out into the early morning, damaged and sobered by what they’ve seen, George and Martha stand alone, huddled together, looking out into the audience and wondering if they can possibly make it, each stripped of his or her defenses. “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf,” George sings quietly, one more time, like a child comforting himself in the dark. And Martha, in her profoundest moment of bravery in a play filled with faux boldness, dares to admit: “I am, George. I am.”

Kamela Dolinova is a writer, actor, director, healer, and person with too many jobs. She loves the community and little theatre scenes in Boston, and has recently enjoyed working with Flat Earth Theatre, Theatre@First, and Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company. She also blogs at Power In Your Hands.

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