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.
What 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.
Was it your intention to transform George?
No, I wouldn't say so. There was never a time we sat in rehearsals and said, "We want to reinvent Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? We've got a different take on this!" I think in order to do that we would have had to be in discussion about things that other people had done [in the roles]. We didn't really do that. We just opened the script up to page 1 and started work on it, as if it were a new play. That's often our approach at Steppenwolf, whether we're doing a new play or we're doing a classic. It's very actor-based; the questions we ask are actor questions: What am I doing here? What do I want, and what am I willing to do to get it? Those sorts of things. You look at the information that is given in the play about the character, you look at the information that other characters give about the character, and you make choices based on that. There's no payoff in trying to address what other people have done with it.
How much of this "new" George is your making and how much comes from Pam's direction?
Boy, that's a tough one to answer, 'cause you never know. Look, if I were left to my own devices, I'd be up there doing something, but I can't imagine how shapeless and perhaps [with] moments lacking in taste it would be. All actors--I don't care how good, how accomplished, how creative they may be--benefit from the guiding hand of a good director. Pam's got a very keen eye, and we had a very keen dialogue based on this story we felt we needed to tell. wanted to tell. Again, you sort of roll up your sleeves with the script and ask yourself: What is the story we want to tell people out in the audience? How do I best tell that story? How can I embody this person in order to best communicate these ideas? you've gotta have a good director to do this, so I don't really know where Pam leaves off and I begin.
Do you feel George has been mischaracterized by audiences and critics?
I don't know about that. It's easier for me to talk about that in terms of Amy than myself. For instance, if I hear somebody criticizing Amy's performance for not being of a certain size, I get mad about that. She's not Judy Garland in Carnegie Hall, she's a small-town daughter of a university president. I've lived in a small town where a college is, my folks both taught at one. There are certain realities about those towns that are undeniable. The fact is that Martha's a human being, and she's in this marriage, she's a real person. Like I said, it's easier for me to bristle and get indignant on Amy's behalf than mine.
So how do you see George?
I think he's a lot of things. One of the reasons he's such a compelling character is he's very complex. George is not any one thing. I can feel sometimes when I'm out there performing it the sort of sway of the audience as they align themselves with George and go "George is my man," but then George does something that the audience does not like or approve of and you can feel them sort of stepping back and going, How do I really feel about this guy? He's clearly very smart--I mean, monstrously smart--and he's very funny. He has a dry wit, and also a ferocious wit. If you listen to what Martha says about George, at one point she says that he has no personality. Clearly, that's not true. George has kind of an incredible personality, kind of a mesmerizing personality. Similarly, when George calls Martha a monster, a gorgon, a harpy, whatever the words are, you have to call some of that into question too. We don't always call each other what we actually are.
One of the key things about George for me is he loves his wife a lot. And if that's the case, he's capable of great love. Ultimately, that to me makes him a sympathetic character. He not only loves his wife, he's willing to fight for it. That shows a certain fortitude in my mind. Though George is backed into the corner a number of times in the play, he's very resourceful. It would seem as if he has no options, and yet invariably he finds some way out of a jam that he's in--either a small verbal one, or a much larger one in terms of his marriage. So I find a lot to admire in him. He's also damaged goods. He has a troubled history. And if either of these people, George or Martha, was healthy enough to say, "I love you and you're hurting me; please stop hurting me," maybe we wouldn't have a play, but... They're damaged goods, but that's what makes them interesting and ultimately identifiable for audiences.