Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Theatre Review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Normally you would think that an acting company like Steppenwolf known for its naturalistic approach to acting might not be the best fit for Edward Albee’s famous play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” At least in these reviewers’ eyes Virginia Woolf has always had an absurdist performance style to it. A tennis match between insults with one winner and one broken mess left at the end of the game. These are adults who like to play painful children’s games regardless of whatever emotional consequences are left.

In Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s blistering production of Edward Albee’s American Classic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” from the moment that Tracy Letts and Amy Morton’s George and Marta enter their home you know you’re in for a devastating night of theater with electricity crackling though the air.

It’s the old saying it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt however, in this household it seems like that’s the prize to be won. In a typical night out after a college party our first player George a man so beaten down by his lack of success in a career that he seemed to have the means but not the ability to be successful and his wife Martha a woman that could be described equal parts sadomasochistic and other parts drag queen come home tired and drunk Though this isn’t like a lot of nights Martha has decided to invite over the new couple for a few more cocktails. George is the type man that is brimming with murderous rage beneath him but he usually keeps it in check until the alcohol and the games start flowing, Martha on the hand is always filled with piss vinegar because she’s the type of woman that has to be the center of attention with all the men and make sure all the women fear her and she seems to relish this role too well.

As the play starts Martha comes in early one morning after a party starting off quoting lines as any good drag queen who’s had one too many would from a Bette Davis movie and then from there proceeds to announce to George that she’s brought guests into their house of horrors. It’s just another night into playing one of their typical twisted games that only one can win but it seems like both will lose at least a little something. The only difference tonight has from any other night is they are joined by some fresh blood for them to devour.

There’s a new biology teacher at the college Nick who besides being very good looking has aspirations of getting further there whatever I takes. He realizes very quickly that Martha openly is attracted to him and since her father happens to also be the Dean there he thinks he has control in this and tries to use it to his advantage. Normally it would work but he’s up against pro’s and as we find out Nick doesn’t stand a chance and as a result his mousey wife Honey must play a casualty in this night. At this party Nick and Honey are stuck in the middle of George and Martha’s tennis match and drunkenly seem to be trying to dodge balls but mostly get hit right in the face with them at each serve. You see since Martha’s father is the Dean of the college she uses this against both George and Nick to her advantage and never lets either one of them forgets for a minute.

Nick is the type that married as soon as he was done with school not because he was in love with Honey but because he thought she was pregnant and in a way he could have a wife to look even better for a job but love is not important in this play at all unless it’s George and Martha’s twisted version of it. As for Honey you always get the impression that she was born and raised to be someone’s wife nothing more, nothing less. What we learn here is there is no such thing as innocence just verifying degrees of prey and here only the strong can survive.

Todd Rosenthal has created a home that is as lived in and as cluttered as the performances that are on this stage, special mention has to be also made to Nick Sandys fight choreography as it brings a real danger to a show that already has so much realism to it. The Director Pam MaKinnon keeps the action tight without being claustrophobic but has directed her actors to swing the racket back and forth with a smile on their face fully aware of the pain they’re inflicting on each other until the moment it hits too deep and then they want the game to end. Unfortunately for them and sadly fortunately for us no one wants to stop until there is a clear winner and a crumpled mess of a loser. As Martha says to Nick and I apologize for paraphrasing that George is always able to come up with a new game at a moments notice for her and that’s one of the reasons he is the only man she has ever loved.

I tried to save the best for the last and the reason that this production soars, the acting. Carrie Coon gives Honey the right amount of child like innocence that’s completely lost in this room full of sharks while Madison Dirks Nick thinks that he can hold his own against the heavyweights but soon realizes that all he has to offer is his looks and brute strength which in this game doesn’t help him at all. He starts out like most men thinking that he’s a hot shot but by George and Martha’s verbal attacks consistently forgetting what department he works in, reveling secrets he should not have shared about his marriage or his prospects, and finally his manhood is left broken and defeated.

The stars of this piece Amy Morton’s Martha and Tracy Letts George are a different pair. At the beginning Ms. Morton shows you what you’re in for with Martha. She starts out loud; pushy, demanding but though out the night turns it into a symphony of highs and lows. She’s slightly different then most other Martha’s I’ve seen (most famously Kathleen Turners Drag Queen performance in the recent tour company.) She plays a more human Martha, if that’s possible and maybe that’s why I took to it compared to a lot of others. I always saw Martha as a Drag Queen instead of a real person and Ms. Morton gets into the pain and the anger into the role unlike others I’ve seen. She’s also no victim fully aware of everything she does and has no problem casting either George or Honey aside to get what she wants. At the end is when you get a glimpse of a human Martha and it’s almost and I mean almost hard to forget all of the awful things she has done previously. This production however belongs to Tracy Letts and should clear his mantel for the Jeff Award that will follow if not any other award should this production have a life outside of Chicago. His George starts out and has seconds of catatonic stages but like a razor flips right back into the game with large amounts of blood on his hands. He’ll let you win the first few lines but just so he can size you up after that there’s no chance for you and any feeling he might have had is gone along with his opponent. In Ms. Morton’s case you get the impression she keeps changing the game to suite her own desires with Mr. Lett’s I always felt like he was in control of this game if not his emotions. He’s been to this party, he’s played this game, he’s even thought a long time ago how he would end it if he needed to and when he’s left with no choice he finally destroys his only semi-worth opponent leaving her a mess but still showing enough love in Martha that even the game has changed for good the aftermath has not. He’s both victim and bully in the same breath and make no mistake just when you think you have gotten him he will go in for the kill. Again as I’ve always thought George is the type of man that everyone always says was a quite man kept to himself said the oddest yet wittiest things until you found out that he was a serial killer.

This is a production not to be missed and in all my years of seeing shows at Steppenwolf ranks up there with the very best productions.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is playing at the Downstairs Theatre Thursdays though February 13, 2011. It plays on Tue, Wed, Thu, Fri, Sat, and Sun at 7:30 pm and on both Sun & Sat there is a 3:00 pm matinee. Ticket Prices range from $20-$73 and can be ordered at the Box Office: 312-335-1650. If you click on the title above there’s a link that will bring you to the show’s website.

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