Afraid of VIRGINIA WOOLF? Not at the Belmont, but Maybe Elsewhere?

Afraid of VIRGINIA WOOLF?  Not at the Belmont, but Maybe Elsewhere?Tennessee Williams may be better-known and likely better-loved, having been as much a Tennessee Williams character as the ones he wrote. Arthur Miller may have been more of a political and social commentator. But Edward Albee left his own mark on a generation of theatregoers. Less Southern gothic, less socio-political, but intensely psychoanalytic, Albee wrote of soul-searching, sadism, and society. His first widely recognized foray into all of the above came with his Broadway debut in WHO'S AFRAID OF Virginia Woolf? in 1962. By 1966 it had become a movie, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Taylor and Burton, that almost everyone in America knew, and by which almost everyone was slightly scandalized. The original play was selected for the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for drama, which was not awarded because the award's advisory board was too disturbed by its content to allow the award.

The play is a tale of imperfect families - of a college president's daughter who marries the professor who isn't a success, of infertility, of alcohol. It's a story of a younger faculty couple who may have married because the wife was believed to be pregnant, although it may have been a hysterical pregnancy. It's the trainwreck of their colliding into each other at George and Martha's house one night after a faculty party and far, far too much alcohol. George and Martha, whose marriage seems to be crumbling, may have one far stronger than it looks, while the supposedly happy newlyweds may not be as stable as they appear. What's real and what's illusion blur throughout the night, filtered by alcohol, by lies, by obfuscations, and by family secrets.

It's ostensibly set at a small New England college, unnamed in the play, although it could be set at any college, as long as it's a small private one, and not a nationally ranked football powerhouse; it needs to be at a place where nepotism is an easy thing to achieve. It could be set anywhere in the country, could be extremely flexible, as many of Albee's plays are, as many other plays are. Arthur Miller's classic DEATH OF A SALESMAN was recently done at Gamut Theatre in Harrisburg with an interracial cast, chosen color-blindly, to no ill effect. Can the same be done for Virginia Woolf? The world may never know, as long as Albee's estate retains control of the play. For professional productions, at least, they retain approval of casting, and, as a theatre in Oregon recently discovered, this extends to making sure that the cast of Virginia Woolf is completely white.

There are some plays, like the works of August Wilson, which are often performed locally at Open Stage of Harrisburg, that require African-American casts to portray stories clearly about the African-American experience. Is the tale in Virginia Woolf a story specific to the white middle class community? The estate appears to think so, based upon a few references to Nick, the younger professor's, blondness. That there is an ability to edit out these lines is clear; however, the Dramatists Guild surprisingly sided with Albee's estate, based largely on the right of playwrights to approve casting, and also upon the theory that if Nick were in fact Black, it would have been necessary for the play to remark upon the fact of the younger couple, Nick and Honey, being in an interracial marriage. The latter might indeed have been necessary at the time it was written, but given that most audiences now likely would not notice this, is the effect indeed deleterious? If the few lines pertaining to Nick's looks were edited, would an all African-American cast be able to perform the show? How are the faculty and administration political dynamics, how are the marital relationship dynamics, at a small historically Black college that different from those of any other college?

Virginia Woolf has been done locally twice in the past several years, once at Theatre Harrisburg, and most recently at The Belmont in York. Although the Albee estate's required approval of casts does not appear to extend to community theatres, surprisingly, neither theatre challenged the traditional casting norms. The production at Theatre Harrisburg was reviewed at the time. Virginia Woolf was just produced at The Belmont, however; unfortunately the show was only for one weekend, so a timely review prior to its ending was not possible for our writers.

However, though there were no sparks between The Belmont and the Albee estate, the production produced a great many sparks on stage - it was very possibly one of the strongest productions this writer has seen in recent years. It is particularly satisfying that no effort was made to cast actors resembling the stars of the frequently-seen movie. With four major 1960s film stars (Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis) in it, there's no proper way to try to recreate the film on stage rather than to do a straightforward presentation of the play's script - if anything about Virginia Woolf can be said to be straightforward. Jack Hartman is a solid director, and while Virginia Woolf is an unmitigated challenge, he was able to maintain the relative coherence of what truly is a disjointed though cohesive story.

A production of Virginia Woolf lives or dies on its Martha, and Lori-Nan Engler is an exceptional Martha. Blonde and patrician here, she looks like a college president's daughter, just as much as local theatre veteran Jeff Gilbert can perfectly portray the apparently laid-back, casual, careless academic. "Apparent" is a key word here, since this show is rooted in illusion. Jeremy Slagle gave what may have been one of his best performances as physicist Nick, and Marissa Hoover brought some spine to Honey, Nick's wife, often played by other actresses as almost too timid to be alive. What little dignity any of the characters can be said to retain by the end of the show, Hoover's Honey maintains, despite her night of drinking until completely sick. The chief disappointment of this production was its unfortunately curtailed run, as the first week of its two-week schedule had to be cancelled. This easily could have sustained a three-week run rather than two weeks in the Belmont's black box environment. And Engler, who is from the Philadelphia area, should be invited to perform in any theatre in this area, at any time: she's simply spectacular.

It will be interesting to see if an area college is willing to attempt challenging the casting questions of Albee's work, or when, if ever, any professional companies will be willing to attempt to challenge the status quo of casting it - who's not afraid of casting Virginia Woolf?

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