Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Also see Richard's review of The Light
The main reason is the new Martha here, actress Mara Bollini, sensuous and sententious, handling each moment as if it has arrived for the very first time, and hitting a rolling boil by act three. She's not the braying bitch, exclusively, you may be expecting: there's mostly just this coiled snake in her, waiting to strike. The whole show is as long as the movie Lawrence of Arabia (if you subtract out the movie's pre-show music and its intermission), but it cracks the code of a great work in a wonderfully new way.
And while most of the characters on stage still occasionally jangle the costume jewelry of staginess, there are plenty of drifting skeins of blood in the water in this production of Albee's 1962 play, which won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1963. A languid go-go dancing scene sets up its own encampment of devious sentimentality. And near the end, when both female characters on stage are sobbing uncontrollably, it all starts to become cathartic, echoing back across two millennia of theatre with ease.
This Martha is paired with Stephen Peirick as George, exuding a mid-century Laurence Olivier vibe, fastidious and venomous behind horn-rimmed glasses. His permanent scars from the past (the boy he was and the man he might have become) are tinged with the feeling of a hangover that never goes away. And Ms. Bollini's spellbinding "memory" of their son, breaking his arm at the age of three, coupled with her colossal anguish in the end, forced to confront her allotted share of meaninglessness, make this the most honest Virginia Woolf I've ever seen. The final image, as the lights go down, with the pair bathed in an absolute-zero shade of blue light, ferments in my memory still.
Stephen Henley brings a dash of "Mad Men" with him as Nick, in a suit and tie and the actor's own trademark fascinating silences, and Stray Dog newcomer Claire Wenzel is bright and (mostly) relentlessly optimistic as Honey. Strange aspects of his ambition and her giggling Midwestern naïveté create new obstacles for the host and hostess of a late night after-party in a college town they call New Carthage.
There's a terrible final breaking point, which reminds us of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, involving a burned book. In 2018, at the same theater, with the same director, Mr. Peirick played Ejlert Løvborg in Hedda Gabler, in which Løvborg's book also gets burned. So this may be what you call "meta-camp."
But, in a peaceful moment before all of that, George's story of seeing the moon rise a second time in one night lands with new clarity–especially considering it was the first play I ever had to think about dissecting, in high school nearly fifty years ago, and I'd never figured it out till now. In this exceptional new production, Edward Albee's most famous play finds a new trail toward its own clearing, to become the domestic "war to end all wars."
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs through February 25, 2023, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit www.straydogtheatre.org.