Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Set in a fictitious college town in the mid-1960s, the plot plays out mostly in real time, beginning at 2 a.m. when George and Martha have just returned home from a new faculty reception held at the house of Martha's father, the president of the college. We will quickly learn that George is a professor in the history department and that Martha is a long-suffering faculty wife who has never been truly happy with her life or her husband's lack of success. When the play begins, and unbeknownst to George, Martha has invited a young couple, Nick, a new biology professor, and his mousy wife Honey, over for a nightcap. Over the next few hours, as the night becomes morning and numerous liquor bottles are emptied, George and Martha's home becomes an intellectual and confrontational war zone as sparks fly, harsh words and accusations are said, and the couples bicker, goad their spouses and each other, and play a succession of mental mind games until the regrets and demons in their past surface and the sad truths of their lives are revealed.
Albee's play is a masterpiece rich in character, plot and dialogue. His script so perfectly lays out these individuals who, while strong, are flawed, fearful, insecure, and ultimately defeated. His succinct dialogue is raw and real in how it depicts the intricacies of the marital games they play to fulfill the illusions and fantasies they've created to help overcome their unfulfilling and disappointing lives. And while on the surface the plot may not seem like much more than spending a few hours with two boozy and bickering couples, Albee shows us that the self-destructive, love-hate relationships they have is how they cope with the disillusionments in their lives and the shortcomings in their careers and marriages.
Under Cody Dull's direction, Stage Left's cast deliver performances that are realistic and infused with emotion. Amber Ryan and Eric Schoen are very believable as the long suffering and unhappy Martha and George. Ryan is wonderful as the loud, flirty, and combative Martha, who seems to come alive during the knock-down, drag-out fights with George. Yet, when the truth comes out toward the end of the play, her emotions are raw and result in a moving performance that is heartbreaking. Schoen does a very good job portraying this milquetoast man who seemingly has spent years as Martha's verbal and emotional punching bag. While George is a weak man, the actor playing him also needs to show that, while George is constantly harassed by Martha, he is able to hold his own against her, and Schoen depicts a nice range of emotions that work well in this regard. There is also a sense of neediness the characters have for each other that can be felt from both Ryan and Schoen's performances, even though they are constantly going at each other.
As Nick and Honey, Jason White and GinaKay Howell are quite good in depicting the youthful nature of this somewhat mismatched couple. White shows that Nick is chummy and outgoing and nowhere near as naïve as Honey when he doesn't shy away as Martha's flirtatious advances make him the perfect, yet not so innocent, bystander at the center of the games between Martha and George. Howell's high-pitched, girlish giggle and downcast eyes provide a realistic sense of not being too bright and being dependent on her husband. When the two find themselves at the center of the parlor games, White and Howell's portrayals do well to depict the young couple's own insecurities.
Dull's direction and staging perfectly match the explosive nature of the script, with Ryan and Schoen often pacing around the period furniture like two animals sizing each other up and looking for the best vantage point before they strike. Dull and Leroy Timblin's set design is simple, using just a few pieces of furniture and grey tones on the flats and walls to depict the late night, boozy environ of George and Martha, and Dull's costumes are excellent and period perfect. Keath Hall's fight choreography provides realism throughout and, while no lighting designer is credited in the program, the end moment, which uses a tight spotlight, packs a punch.
I only have a few, small quibbles about the production: Howell has several visible tattoos that aren't exactly germane to the character or period and that occasionally pull focus and, besides Howell's well-played depiction, I wanted a better sense of how the large amount of alcohol the characters have consumed throughout the play has impacted them. Ryan's portrayal toward the end of the third act works well to show this, but, while we don't need to see them all as stumbling drunks, we need to see how the booze has impacted their thought processes, loosened their inhibitions, and made them all emotionally vulnerable.
Assumedly less shocking today than when it first premiered in 1962, but still explosive, and with performances that are real, raw and rich, Stage Left Productions' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is intense and emotional as it portrays the stormy, turbulent, and volatile relationships of these two married couples.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs through September 18, 2022, at Stage Left Productions, 11340 West Bell Road, Suite 105, Surprise AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.stageleftaz.com or call 623-285-6321.
Director/ Costume Design: Cody Dull