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Chicago by John Olson

Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Steppenwolf Theatre

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Amy Morton and Tracy Letts
Could it be that Tracy Letts—born three years after Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? originally opened on Broadway—was created to play its George? His writing in August: Osage County proved him adept at creating the sort of dry and devastating put-downs that fly through Virginia Woolf and as an actor he's equally skillful at delivering lines of that ilk written by others. I do hope he and Edward Albee got along when Albee attended rehearsals of this play at Steppenwolf because it would be frightening to picture an argument between the two of them. And Letts's co-star Amy Morton, indelible as Barbara who assumed the role of matriarch in August by shouting "I'm running things now!" at the end of act two, has more than proven her chops to play Martha. The expectations of these two performers are high in taking on Albee's marathon domestic drama that must certainly have been an influence on Letts in writing August. As is typical for Steppenwolf, they don't disappoint and even in meeting expectations they come up with new ways to surprise. Under Pam McKinnon's direction, Letts and Morton offer takes on their characters different enough to merit a return look at the piece and to allow the audience to re-examine the characters.

Letts plays George's subtext unambiguously. He's angry. He's probably long accepted that his career as a professor—though he's far from retirement in his mid-forties—is a dead end. His resentment of the younger generation coming up is palpable and Letts' mellifluous voice helps give George a presence that suggests he is no patsy. From very early in the first act, as the young biology professor Nick and Nick's wife Honey arrive at George and Martha's for a nightcap at 2 a.m., he's seething and ready to lash out. Though resigned to his fate, George seems to determine to do some damage on his way out. Letts shows George to be defeated, yet still seeking to maintain some pride by asserting himself over the younger Nick, who isn't even exactly a rival since they teach in different departments. It's a fascinating take on the character, though it doesn't really give Letts enough room to become increasingly desperate as the long alcohol-infused night wears on. For the premise of the play—that these two couples, who barely know each other at the outset will become destructive of themselves and each other over the next three hours—to work, we have to see a gradual and logical escalation of hostilities. That doesn't happen as clearly as it should in this production and it makes the evening feel longer than we'd like.

Morton's Martha is more complex. She seems to be comfortable with George and have affection for him. We can even suspect that her insults and taunts of George seem to come from her familiarity with him and that she may not even realize how hurtful her actions are to George. She's found a way of coping with her (or maybe it's their) dissatisfaction—by inappropriately sharing details of it with others. Morton's physical appearance—she's in great shape—give a different coloring to her sexual advances toward Nick. It's easy to believe she would want and could get a more exciting sex life than she's apparently having with George. It may be that it's more important for her to believe her desired conquests are possible than to actually have them. At the beginning of act three, after she's struck out with Nick and George has appeared indifferent to her infidelities, Morton show Martha to be utterly defeated, spent. When George returns to do the final battles with Martha and Nick, Martha no longer has the strength to fight back. George seems not to recognize this and when he cruelly confronts her, it's no longer a fair fight.

Letts and Morton are matched with a strong Nick and Honey in Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon. The slender Coon makes a frail-appearing Honey, and she handles with skill Honey's drunken state from giggles to gagging in the bathroom, and moving up to her hysteria as the play progresses. Dirks transitions believably from the reserved and polite Nick of the first act into the aggressive and defiant Nick by the end. He looks the part, too, easily reading as a 28-year-old in great physical shape with slicked hair so perfectly 1962 that you'd swear someone at Steppenwolf found a real tube of Brylcreem for him. The period and locale are established beautifully in the costumes by Nan Cibula-Jenkins and Todd Rosenthal's massive and cluttered set representing George and Martha's home.

This Virginia Woolf is in every way a major production of the classic. Though their rethinking of George and Martha may have altered its dramatic arc in a way that creates some problems, McKinnon, Letts and Morton give us additional insights into the difficulties of accepting reality and adjusting when life doesn't follow the script we expected.

Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will run through February 13, 2011 in the Downstairs Theater at Steppenwolf, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago. For tickets, visit the box office, www.steppenwolf.org or call 312-335-1650.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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