Review: WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? Will Blow Your House Down

By: Jan. 17, 2017
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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Written by Edward Albee, Directed by Scott Edmiston; Scenic Design, Janie E. Howland; Costume Design, Charles Schoonmaker; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow; Sound Design, Dewey Dellay; Assistant Director, Justin J. Sacramone; Production Stage Manager, Diane McLean; Assistant Stage Manager, Geena Forristall

CAST: Steven Barkhimer, Paula Plum, Erica Spyres, Dan Whelton

Performances through February 12 at Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-585-5678 or www.lyricstage.com

In the mood for a little light entertainment? Try the Golden Globe-winning, song-and-dance pic La La Land at your nearby multiplex. However, if you crave something more substantial in this frigid winter of our discontent, you will find nothing better than Edward Albee's 1962 barn-burner, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston. It won't warm your heart, but the production gives off intense heat and is likely to make you sweat while you watch the emotional conflagration that rages and consumes everyone in its path. Director Scott Edmiston adheres to the playwright's strict blueprint, but takes full advantage of the singular qualities his quartet of actors bring to their interpretations.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? consists of three acts and runs about three hours, including the respite provided by two intermissions. The cast gets a workout, physical as well as mental, and needs the time out, but the breathers are also welcomed by the audience. Virginia Woolf is the closest thing to a heavyweight boxing match you'll see on the stage, only punches are replaced by rapid combinations of words that pummel and wound when they land. George and Martha are a bitter, middle-aged couple whose disappointing marriage is fueled by vitriol and psychological games, but they are skilled at dodging and parrying each other's verbal blows. When they invite newcomers Nick and Honey into their lair, the younger pair is unprepared for what they will experience in their ringside seats.

Steven Barkhimer (George) and Paula Plum (Martha) are conducting a master class in roles that most people associate with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who starred in the 1966 black-and-white film version of Albee's play. Burton and Taylor were huge stars at the time, as well as married to each other, and their on-screen fury piqued the viewers' imagination as to its parallels with their real-life relationship. However, there is no imitation to be seen in Barkhimer's or Plum's performance. They make these characters their own, individually and in tandem, making them feel lived-in, yet fresh.

Barkhimer hits the mark on every step of George's arduous journey, finding all of the nuances in his character's behavior. He is weary and wary in his arguments with his wife, alternately avoiding or engaging in the war of words. At times, he appears emasculated and defenseless, but suddenly reverses course to win the upper hand. Plum is a monster (as in fierce, huge) in an exhausting, exhaustive tour de force character study. It's a wonder that she remains standing by the end, but she never flags. Her presence is so intense that you feel her aura even when she is offstage, as if she leaves behind a shimmering hologram to hold her place. The Barkhimer-Plum coupling is inspired, matching each other's anger, guile, wit, craziness, and tenderness in a seamlessly choreographed duel to the finish.

Dan Whelton (Nick) and Erica Spyres (Honey) are equally exceptional, their performances commanding attention even as their characters are often marginalized by the host couple. Whelton goes toe-to-toe with Barkhimer, metaphorically flexing his younger muscles, and displays a level of sexy cockiness when Martha draws Nick into her web. He rides the wave of his character's emotions like a pro surfer, always exhibiting the facial expressions and body language that show his confidence, confusion, revulsion, and anger, among others. Primarily, Nick is molded into a fully-realized character in Whelton's hands.

The challenge is somewhat greater with Honey as she is characterized as being plain and mousy, and she speaks fewer lines than the others. While spending a lot of time offstage, she is further defined by what the other characters say about her. However, Spyres does an outstanding job of creating Honey in her own way, especially when she has nothing to say. Watching her as she watches Barkhimer spinning the narrative in the third act, or seeing her stand up to Nick when he tries to control her, the depth and breadth of what she conveys with her eyes and the set of her jaw is remarkable. In Spyres' interpretation, Honey becomes the mouse that roared (quietly) and shows her ability to impact the lives of the cats who think they're superior.

The design elements work hand in glove to capture the look, the feel, and the sound of George and Martha's tired living room in their house on the campus of a small New England college in 1962. Scenic designer Janie E. Howland skews the lines of the proscenium to give the room an off-kilter appearance and Karen Perlow's lighting design indicates the passing hours from late night to early morning. She also uses spotlights and shadowy uplighting to segregate a character making a significant speech. Charles Schoonmaker attends to many details of the period in his costume design, including showing just the right amount of Nick's white, straight fold pocket square protruding from his jacket breast pocket, Honey's very 60's sheath dress, and Martha's provocative, low-cut patterned tunic. Dewey Dellay composed and recorded dissonant, jazzy music to play between the acts. Kudos to Stephanie Hettrick (Properties) for gathering a wealth of evocative pieces of furniture.

Barkhimer, Plum, Whelton, and Spyres are indeed a sublime cast, but Edmiston's vision is the pièce de résistance. He makes this 1962 play feel relevant and powerful, not dated in the least, and blocks the action to aim dramatic focus and build the tension, while not sacrificing the considerable humor in the script. He steadily hammers away at Albee's theme of truth vs. illusion, until it slowly sinks in that we are facing that selfsame dichotomy in the new world order of 2017. "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? I am, George...I am."

Photo credit: Mark S. Howard (Paula Plum, Dan Whelton, Erica Spyres, Steven Barkhimer)



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