Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 13, 2012
Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Directed by Pam MacKinnon. Scenic design by Todd Rosenthal. Costume design by Nan Cibula-Jenkins. Lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes. Sound design by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen. Cast: Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Carrie Coon, Madison Dirks.
This is perhaps the grandest surprise in Pam MacKinnon's production of Edward Albee's 1962 masterpiece, which premiered at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2010 and subsequently appeared at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., but it's far from the only one. As performed by Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, George and Martha deliver every word, every action, and even every thought anew. If you're familiar with this play, you'll be shocked at the new colors, sounds, and feelings that this company unearths.
First among these is an unusually titanic George. Whereas the history professor, languishing away in a nothing post at a New England college, is usually suffocated by a Martha he has to (figuratively) murder by force, this time he's an active player from the outset. In the opening exchanges, when the pair is decompressing after one occasion of drunken revelry and before another, Letts makes it clear that his George will give as good as he gets. There's not the tiniest sense of the submissive about him: He has a whip-cracking, adroitly acidic retort for each of Martha's taunts, a way to defuse each of her new braying accusations, and beyond that a patience that would put the Biblical Job's to shame.
It is not, however, limitless. Letts's initial committed resignation, wrapped in a cloak of warm — loving? — acceptance begins to ooze away and transform rapidly once George is exposed to his late-night guests: Nick and Honey (Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon), a young couple he and Martha just met at the party. Nick, a strapping biologist, and Honey, a giggling wisp of a woman (she's referred to as a mouse with alarming regularity), have plenty of problems, too, but once exposed to George and Martha's strangely functional dysfunction only exacerbate a situation that's waited decades to come to a head.
With each new scene, as George confronts Nick about his work and his silently tortured marriage to Honey, and later as Nick and Martha explore revenge-inspired liaisons, the tension builds as George wars against his own better instincts. Letts lets drop his character's early geniality and willingness to reveal a thoroughly bruised ego and sense of the romantic, which he then must repair via the only method he has at his disposal.
The jocular George of Act I becomes a full-out monster by the climax of Act III, yet it happens so gradually and honestly that you don't notice the shift until it's finished. Housing George's harshest impulses in that deceptively sunny personality from the beginning gives Letts the freedom he needs to do anything and do it believably, overcoming a hurdle that so many actors face. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is now, more than ever, George's story, and it's all the richer for the change in focus.
Morton, who previously glowed on Broadway in the Letts-written August: Osage County, is almost his equal. She's snugly comfortable with her lighter moments as well, and like Letts carries the buoyancy into the scenes that plumb considerably deeper feelings. Given the stretches of the play that focus on Martha's dabblings with Nick and wrestling with concepts of "truth and illusion" (which she tries — and fails — to turn back on George once she begins losing her grip on him), this is bottle-rocket effective most of the time.
It's only when Martha must let all of the façades crack that Morton proves less than entirely up to the task. Appearing too young for her role by at least a decade (Martha is at least 50, most likely slightly older), she struggles a bit throughout to find the pain and emotional nakedness Martha must now and then display. (The opening scene of Act III is the most glaring.) Morton remedies all this by the finale, and turns in as wrenching and destroyed rendering of it as I've ever witnessed onstage or screen. But, unlike with Letts, the journey there is not completely smooth.
Still, MacKinnon's staging is intently focused and superbly paced — Letts's and Morton's walking over each other's lines in the first scene, as if rehashing a battle they've waged thousands of times before, sets a high-octane standard for the evening that refuses to flag—and Todd Rosenthal's warmly cluttered set and Allen Lee Hughes's subtly accusatory lighting are practically flawless complements. If I remain unconvinced that Albee's relatively recent textual alterations, which mostly impact the "big secret," especially at the end of Act II, and gut a previously complex faced of George and Honey's relationship, are improvements, MacKinnon and her actors navigate them without a stumble.
Not that they trip up anywhere else. The utter lack of affect and artifice, which can so easily creep into Albee's lushly dialogued plays, makes this Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? not just an exciting night at the theatre, but also a refreshingly truthful and insightful one. Through their stated and unacknowledged toying with each other, George and Martha might be having the best time of their lives, and for that matter the last one. But MacKinnon and her actors, particularly Letts, don't let you forget that great theatre, like that Albee crafted 50 years ago and that burns as brightly today, is anything but a game.