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BWW Interviews: By George! How Tracy Letts Remade a Classic

With the year coming to an end, Tracy Letts and the Broadway revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are showing up on many "best theater of 2012" lists. Letts' performance of George in the Edward Albee masterwork has been hailed as not just superb but historic. George has often been thought of as a meek codependent to the braying Martha, but Letts' George is assertive and undominated, and their relationship seems more naturalistic, and sexier, than ever before. This production of Virginia Woolf, directed by Pam MacKinnon, originated in 2010 at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, where Letts has been a company member for a decade. Steppenwolf also originated the last Letts project to receive bounteous accolades in New York--though that was a play he wrote, 2007's Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County (earlier this year Steppenwolf produced an adaptation of The Three Sisters by Letts). Amy Morton, who costarred in Osage County and has played opposite Letts many times in Chicago, is Martha in Virginia Woolf. The groundbreaking 1962 drama had a Broadway revival just seven years ago--for which Bill Irwin won a Tony as George--and was famously made into a movie by Mike Nichols. Letts recently spoke with BroadwayWorld about how he's helped make audiences look anew at this American classic.

picWhat was your history with George before this production?
Both of my parents were English teachers, and my dad used to teach this play so I always remember a dog-eared copy of the paperback sitting around the house somewhere. When I first got into acting when I was a teenager, I remember reading this play a lot and speaking the lines aloud. So I can remember playing the role of George when I was 15, 16 years old--in the privacy of my home. I certainly was familiar with the movie. My parents exposed me to some mature work when I was a kid, and I remember the movie pretty vividly.
Amy Morton directed a production of this play at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta [in 2004], and she called me and asked if I would do it. I was a bit young for the part--I was 38 at the time--but I accepted immediately, knowing I could not pass up an opportunity to do this. And then when I did the play, I was working with an actress playing Martha for her third time. At one point I was particularly nervous, probably during previews, and this actress said to me, "You know, if you're suited for these roles, it's the kind of part you will play more than once in your life. So look at this as just your first opportunity to start to learn this guy. You'll get other shots at it." And of course that's the way it turned out. We started this production at Steppenwolf two years ago, and then took it to the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., so in some ways this is the fourth time I've taken on the part.

How does it feel to be lauded for making this iconic role, which other actors have made famous and won awards for, your own?
How does it feel? It feels great that people are responding the way that they are. I'm delighted that people are rediscovering Mr. Albee's play. I think sometimes these things, especially because of movies, can become identified with a set of symbols, and we start to forget what they're really about. Streetcar Named Desire is a really good example of that. Brando's performance was so defining, not only of that piece but of him as an actor and of the whole shift in acting style, and yet if you're going to do Streetcar Named Desire, it doesn't pay to sit around and talk about Marlon Brando. You have to figure out who Stanley Kowalski is. If you're doing Glengarry Glen Ross, you're doing a play about Chicago real estate salesmen. And similarly with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It's a play about a university professor and his wife, who is the daughter of the president of this small-town college. They're not Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, they're these two people in this town. Well, anyway, it is gratifying to hear that people are responding to the play again, and not just to its iconic status.

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Adrienne Onofri Adrienne Onofri, one of BroadwayWorld's original columnists, created and writes the Gypsy of the Month feature on the website. She also does interviews and event coverage for BroadwayWorld, and is a member of the Drama Desk. Adrienne is also a travel writer and the author of the book "Walking Brooklyn: 30 Tours Exploring Historical Legacies, Neighborhood Culture, Side Streets, and Waterways," published by Wilderness Press.