The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?
That Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? is a play first and a star vehicle second is amplified by the excellent current production at ACT Theatre. This riveting contemporary tragedy with comic overtones doesn't need a Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl (who premiered the show on Broadway) or the excellent Bill Irwin and Sally Field (who followed them and whose work this scribe thoroughly admired). In Director Warner Shook's capable hands, the play itself shines as a disturbingly engaging look at the ramifications an undeniably "pastoral" indiscretion has on a seemingly perfect American family.
There is so much levity, in a sort of neo-Noel Coward vein, in the play's first half hour, that what follows hits us even harder as the upper middle class Martin, a famous architect an the top of his game, seems jovially befuddled but with hints of something darker going on. It's no onset of Alzheimer's, though; rather what starts with a seeming joke to his adoring wife Stevie, about his having an extramarital affair with a certain Sylvia, rapidly segues into the painful examination of a man's unraveling and the family destroyed along with it. Martin's best friend Ross finds out first and betrays Martin's confidence in a tell all letter to Stevie, who copes with what seems an unspeakable betrayal in a way that recalls the darkest of Greek tragedies. Meanwhile, happily gay teenaged son Billy deals as best he can with the realization that even the perfect family and can fall apart at the seams.
Warner Shook directs the piece at a brisk clip, but not a moment seems rushed in the intermissionless hour and ¾ running time. As was always the case in his years directing at Intiman (as the past artistic director at that company), Shook casts pitch perfect actors and directs them with grace and sensitivity.
Brian Kerwin, who ably portrayed another disturbed character in Intiman's How I Learned to Drive some years ago, etches a poignant, sympathetic and painfully real performance as Martin. Cynthia Mace carefully takes her Stevie through a whole landscape of emotions, understandable to anyone who has been betrayed by a lover, even if we can't relate to the breed of lover Martin's been cheating on her with. Frank Corrado as the Judas in best friend's clothing does well in the show's most difficult and least successfully written role, and Ian Fraser is wholly convincing, humorous and empathy engendering as Billy.
Michael Olich's cold and starkly modern living room setting is well observed and designed for the chaos wrought upon it when Stevie vents her wrath on her furnishings and artwork. Mary Louise Geiger's lighting and Frances Kenny's costumes are understated perfection.
ACT has probably been nervous that a lot of its more conservative subscribers may be turned off by this wild ride. I only noted one walkout during the performance I attended. Hopefully, most people will stay with The Goat to the end. It's a great production, and if you don't stay to the finish, you may as well have not gone at all.
The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? runs Tuesdays-Sundays through August 17 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $10-$45. For further information call 206-292-7676, or visit the ACT web site at www.acttheatre.org.