Regional Reviews: Chicago
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
As cliché as it sounds, the set and props, designed by Kevin Rolfs, really do serve as a character. The set is built in such a way that the audience's relationship to it is more "traditional" than other productions Invictus has mounted in the space, though there's no proscenium, and as Askenaizer promised in his brief opening words, "the carnage" does tend to land in the laps of those in the front row. (Which is not at all to say that Jay Donley's fight/intimacy design is not masterful within the confines of of a space that is both challenging and exceptionally well-suited to the play.)
Rolfs also pushes the frame from left to right, and floor to ceiling, as well. The door to the house is up left, opening to the narrow stairs that run behind the open bookshelves demarcating the upstage reaches of the living room. Up right is the other entrance connecting the living room to the never-seen kitchen and bathroom, and just downstage from this, set into the wall, is the all-important bar. In between is a blue-green couch that has seen better days, a coffee table that is simultaneously nondescript and hideous, and two mid-century modern chairs that feel like two too many in a room crowded with cast-off clothing and slithering piles of Life magazines, books, and creased newspapers.
Against this unnervingly overfilled backdrop, Marquecia Jordan's letter-perfect costumes put the finishing touches on the visuals. Martha's cleavage-emphasizing burgundy party dress speaks volumes in contrast to Honey's demure, mustard-colored eyelet cardigan. And in turn, the entirety of her girlish yet frumpy ensemble clashes both literally and conceptually with the subtle blood-red pattern that runs through Nick's charcoal suit.
Although there seemed to be one or two unexpected difficulties with the lighting at the performance I attended, overall, Levi J. Wilkins' design manages to convey both the feeling that dawn cannot be far off and the certainty that it will never come. The blue light that spills in from stage left as Martha and George argue about whether or not the moon is in the sky has a destabilizing effect that tugs the audience further from reality along with Martha.
Although everything practical about the production sets the stage for an unqualified success, the production itself occasionally crosses the line from overwhelming, as Albee surely intended it to be, into slightly too much for too long. Upwards of three hours in a space that small gets to be a lot when the actors seem to have been given the direction to set the intensity to eleven and climb from there.
There's much to praise in Askenaizer's direction, though. The pace and rhythm of the dialogue are skillfully handled throughout. The cast members have a palpable trust in one another and a comfort in wedging themselves into discomfiting emotional spaces that can only come from strong, sure-handed direction. But some fine tuning would have been welcome.
This is particularly the case for Andrea Uppling. Her performance as Martha is spectacular, but one wonders how much more spectacular still it might have been if she had been afforded some quieter, more nuanced moments in Act I to create a stronger through line to her breakdown in Act III.
As George, James Turano seems to have benefitted most from Askenaizer's approach and vision. Despite having the dialogue that seems least grounded in reality, one gets the sense that this character is the director's favorite child, who gets to mutter and swallow throw-away lines (to terrific comedic effect), rather than having to maintain nonstop rage.
As Honey, Rachel Livingston is masterful at the bait and switch. Her sustained nervous laughter in Act I, her clueless and increasingly tipsy conversational stumbles provide perfect cover, such that her eventual childlike enthusiasm for George and Martha's descent into physical violence comes as a vicious shock that somehow feels inevitable.
As Nick, Keenan Odenkirk might easily have gotten lost among the outsized characters surrounding him, and it's true that his performance is, as it almost has to be, more subdued than that of anyone else in the cast. Yet he taps into a period-appropriate vein of masculinity that yields quite interesting results. He and Turano's scenes together are especially fascinating as their two approaches to the text result in each serving as a kind of funhouse mirror for the other's character. Nick is no more what George might have been than George is the historically inevitable outcome for Nick–a state of affairs that mutually perplexes the two and fuels the corkscrew tension that develops between them.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs through June 12, 2022, at the Reginald Vaughn Theatre, 1106 W. Thorndale, Chicago IL. Masking and proof of vaccination are required for audience members. For tickets and information, visit www.invitcustheatreco.com.