Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Also see Fred's review of Seascape
We are on a college campus in the 1960s in a place called New Carthage. It's 2 a.m. and, after a party, Martha (René Augesen) has invited a young couple to her home for another drink or two. Her husband George (Dan Donohue), a man who repeatedly reminds his wife that he is six years younger, is a member of the school's history department. Martha's father leads the academic institution, presumably as president. For a time Martha takes center stage as she lambastes George about anything and everything, whether that be physical or otherwise. More than exasperated that people will soon arrive, he responds to the occasion with an attempt to blast his wife with humiliating commentary.
Nick (Nate Janis) is a biologist from the Midwest and his young wife Honey (Emma Pfitzer Price) hasn't the ability to hold her liquor–at all. George seems to be repeatedly filling up his glass while boisterous, degrading Martha levels one indignity after another at her husband. She makes a desperate sexual play for Nick, which comes as no surprise. Nick, by the way, is far from enamored with George, at best a seasoned and unenthusiastic academic.
It all becomes a marathon battle of survival for both those on stage and others watching them struggle. No one escapes. During the early going, George and Martha lash out at one another, each torrentially furious, in full view of the younger individuals who have just arrived. The second act ushers in some conversation about children before George recommends that everyone try a game called "Get the Guests." The final hour includes a monologue section during which Martha, alone, says, "I cry all the time." Soon thereafter, her line is "I am the Earth Mother and you are all flops." At this juncture, Albee's script takes a turn and shifts to poignant territory complete with symbolism.
The playwright crafted the award-winning Virginia Woolf while he was in his early thirties. It is a harrowing piece of theater through which hostilities amongst couples are lobbed like grenades about the living room. Yale Rep, in an advisory note, cautions its audience that the dialogue can be degrading to women, is racially charged, includes profanity–and the list continues. That said, Albee is a brilliant dramatist as evidenced through his moment-to-moment staccato exchanges. The writer's structuring is to be envied.
René Augesen, as Martha, is vitriolic and audacious, a veritable domestic terrorist when it comes to human relationships. She commands attention throughout and Dan Donohue's George replies with zealous venom. Nate Janis, as Nick, steps into his role when given the opportunity to join the combat. Emma Pfitzer Price, a recent B.F.A graduate at Juilliard, marks Honey with a high-pitched laugh. Her plight is pitiful.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was written more than several years before sensitivity training, encounter groups, and human development seminars began to buzz through college campuses. We have not quite entered the women's rights movement of the late 1960s and '70s. A new production of this Albee piece educates when studied, in context, as a period piece. Still, it's difficult to muster the fortitude to sit through the immensely destructive behavior evidenced through the first two acts before the third brings a measure of nuance, relief and, dare it be mentioned, humanity.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs through October 29, 2022, at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven CT. For information and tickets, call 203-432-1234 or visit yalerep.org.