BWW Review: WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF at Weston Playhouse Theatre Company
"I must be cruel, only to be kind:
Thus bad begins and worse remains behind."
-William Shakespeare, Hamlet
It seems safe to assume that most savvy, theater-going audiences have at least a general idea of what they are getting into when they go to a production of WHO'S AFRAID OF Virginia Woolf. Whether from reading the script in high school or college, to seeing the famous film adaptation with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, or perhaps seeing one of countless productions mounted on Broadway or in other major cities across the country, we steel ourselves for an evening of brutal domestic discord, drenched in booze and dripping with contempt.
But nearly 60 years after Albee's WOOLF first premiered to rave reviews, Weston's production breathes new life into the play, playing up the better angels of both George and Martha's natures through sustained, nuanced subtext that is in constant interplay with the nonstop onslaught of verbal ammunition being hurled across the living room late into the night.
Kathleen McElfresh, who plays Martha in Weston's production, puts it thus, "Before reading the script again, my memory of both seeing and reading the play in years past was alcohol, anger, and a lot of yelling. As we've worked on this production the play continues to reveal to me it's soft underbelly and sharp study of our failings, our love, our will to survive."
It's a radical sort of "Yes, And..." to the legacy of this Albee classic--Yes, it's brutal and honest and terrible and ugly AND the underlying relationship in this marriage may be strong enough to bear it. "Conflict is an important thing," director Mike Donahue asserts, "blunt, frank honesty is necessary in the world of this play. It's not about protecting people's sense of comfort."
Over the course of the three acts, nearly every moment holds together--somehow marrying the cruelty with a parallel vein of compassion. It is particularly effective as a source of disorientation for Nick and Honey, played by Jeffrey Omura and Kristin Villanueva, respectively. They initially balk at the open hostility of their hosts, then seem to sense an undercurrent that makes it much more complex than a mere moment of marital tension.
Andrew Garman, in particular, plays a kinder, gentler George. Even in his more unhinged moments, he seems sure of himself and in control. Of particular note, his strong, steady eye contact in scenes with Martha and Nick belies a desire to connect and to be understood. In fact, the single unbelievable moment of the play was when we are meant to believe that he would throttle his wife's neck after being pushed too far; it doesn't work because he's so collected, so compassionate, so centered. It's too large a leap.
Nick and Honey, played by Jeffrey Omura and Kristin Villanueva, are stellar members of the ensemble. Omura's Nick poses a very believable threat to George both personally and professionally. He is the most chameleon-like character, swinging between bravado, disgust, embarrassment, and anger without a sure sense of center. In this way, he is a weathervane indicating the impact of the gale force of George and Martha's words and actions. Villanueva is a revelation--Honey can be a difficult character to fully realize and her performance finds every moment of humor and despair and plays them to glorious effect. She is a delight to watch, and her change over the course of the evening might be one of the most precipitous--possibly the most physically challenging and certainly the most entertaining to witness.
Kathleen McElfresh's performance as Martha is a luminous tour de force; she starts full throttle and never lets up for the entirety of this lengthy play. She is equal to the role and then some. Her performance is sharp and smart--her stage presence mesmerizing. She builds masterfully toward act three, where she pulls back all the layers and reveals core vulnerabilities, like missing pieces of the story's puzzle. Every revelation vibrates at just the right frequency and she makes you genuinely care about her after all the games have finally played out.
Having such a strong ensemble is crucial so that the dynamic interplay between the two couples can fully reveal all the clockworks. This cast is exceptionally well matched and delivers in full.
The production team worked seamlessly together to suggest 1960s New England while capturing a more generally modern aesthetic overall.
Scenic design by Dane Laffrey and Matthew Iacozza was simple yet effective--the entire play space was jacked up on a two-foot high platform, echoing a boxing ring but also adding an ominous feeling that one could fall off the edge so easily. The orange shag carpeting was a nice period touch. Anya Klepikov's costume design was a nice blend of period and timeless, as well. Martha's cocktail affair was clearly midcentury, while her evening wear (which she wears for most of the play) was a showstopper that could function believably in either era.
Sound design by Sinan Zafar included jazz from the period, emphasizing the director's analogy of Albee's dialogue in the play being similar to the musical genre. Lighting design by Scott Zielinski was effective in conveying the dynamic shifts in the play. Both sound and lights transitioned abruptly at the top of each of the three acts--a powerful and appropriate choice for a play as jarring and unsettling as Edward Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF Virginia Woolf.
Perhaps it seems a hard sell to ask summer theatergoers to commit to a serious and ostensibly dark drama that extends well into the evening, as Albee's play does. I found myself leaving the theater feeling that this production is well worth the effort. Donahue has delivered a compelling and compassionate vision for this classic play that will subvert and surprise. In the dialogue, there is genius, wit, astonishing talent; in the subtext, there is discovery, hope, and the possibility of redemption. And who doesn't need more of that these days?
Weston Playhouse Theatre Company's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plays through September 1st on Weston's Main Stage, 12 Park St. Weston, VT 05161 $45-$69. 802-824-5288, https://www.westonplayhouse.org