‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ at Maryland Ensemble Theatre by Amanda Gunther

FOUR AND A HALF STARS
Clink. The sound of chimes and deception. Clink. The look of houseboys and studs. Clink. The illusion of truth or the truth of illusion; it’s all blended into Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Maryland Ensemble Theatre this winter. Directed by Peter Wray, this intense drama dissects the intricacies of marriage and puts a dark dose of fun in dysfunctional when it comes to relationships. Emoted with ferocious intent and a firm handle on the ability to coax enormous moments of vivacious climax out of Albee’s convoluted work, this production has merit and is worth examining whether or not you’re a fan of the verbose playwright.

The cast of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.’ Photo courtesy of Maryland Ensemble Theatre.

Joe Jalette (Nick), Courtney McLaughlin (Honey), Julie Herber (Martha), and Tad Janes (George). Photo courtesy of Maryland Ensemble Theatre.

Working in the space provided for the main stage at Maryland Ensemble Theatre comes with challenges; a series of which are met and conquered by Set Designer Allison Duvall. Finding a way to keep the intimacy of the space balanced against the open and seemingly unending feel of the enormous well-to-do house, Duvall creates a traditional play space so that everyone in the house can experience all of the action. While the audience is only ever privy to the front sitting room of the house the way the simple staircase and door leading off to the kitchen are placed and designed leave the rest open to an interpretive and explorative imagination. The subdued yellow color scheme keeps the era of the play present without overwhelming the audience; Duvall’s overall uncluttered and simplistic approach to the set design allows the audience to maintain their focus on the performance.

Director Peter Wray demonstrates a commanding knowledge of Albee’s text, but it’s a struggle to keep up with the pace that he has set. Racing through the lines at an almost unseemly pace, Wray keeps the wordy production moving but at times this is troublesome as some of the wittier moments that are sharply carved into Albee’s work get lost in the rapacious exchange. Wray also drives the notion of jumping atop one another’s lines to clip pauses and maintain speed, but this comes with its own problems, especially between George and Nick where there are micro-pauses when the actors don’t pick up immediately on the jumps. Choosing the original text over the current Albee revision is another unusual choice as the original includes a tell-all controversial scene between Honey and George at the end of Act II; but Wray executes this scene with as much precision as he does for the rest of the play’s entirety; delivering its information swiftly with emotional intent.

The acting in this production is stellar; four company members in play driving their skill set to task in delivering a difficult drama effectively. It’s the relationships that develop; the chemistry that arises between unlikely characters, like George and Honey during that detrimental confession scene at the end of Act II, and even the subtle strings of involvement that surface between Nick and George during their encountered conversations on the couch. These are the components that make the production surpass expectations in the mind of theatergoers and Albee fans alike.

Honey (Courtney McLaughlin) is often regarded as the ‘throw-away’ character, or even worse disregarded because of her superficial depth and inability to hold her own in the high-brow intellectual debates of the gathered crowd. McLaughlin approaches the character with a complete understanding of Honey’s place in the show; bringing a unique comic branding to the character in her boisterously vocal laughing and simpering. Her shrill, simpering approach to the emotional crisis of the character are sharply aimed at Nick, and taken with great force; a bold comparison to the generally mousy portrayal of the character on the whole.

Nick (Joe Jalette) is a cheeky character who may be out of his depth when it comes to trading barbs with the likes of George and Martha. Jalette handles the finer nuances of Nick’s character with a subtle flare, keeping his facial expressions composed but intriguing, particularly during George’s mid-Act I rant. There is a physical sleaze to his portrayal when he takes to dancing with Martha, all too easily seducing her as she seduces him. Jalette gives an even performance throughout, despite the generic placement of the character in the story overall, and delivers poignant moments of emotional tension with a depth that radiates through his being without apology.

George (Tad Janes) is the mastermind behind the games; a slick, conniving character that gains much sympathy when he really ought not to. Janes’ approach to the character is vivacious, taking him from the dowdy frumpy bog to an energetic maniacal madman. It’s his little movements with zippy pacing and eager excitement that play out across his face that make this juxtaposition of character present. The ability to create something sparkling inside of the shell of frumpy is an exceptional thing, something that Janes handles perfectly.

All eyes on Martha (Julie Herber). That’s how she would have it anyhow, lunkheads or not. Herber’s acerbic bite follows every insult she slings, especially when they’re slung at George; creating a vicious viper of a character without much by the way of remorse or humanity. Creating this sinful and braying creature in a heightened portrayal of Albee’s intentions would almost seem over the top if it wasn’t for Herber’s exceptional vulnerability cracked and displaced at precisely the right moments as Act III winds itself down to a conclusion. The difference in these two portions of her performance are shocking, enthralling, and leaves the onlooker with a sense of vindication and pity all combined in one final moment at the end. Herber’s masterful approach to this iconic theatrical character will leave you thoroughly impressed with both her acting and the production as a whole.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Maryland Ensemble Theatre is stunning!

Running Time: Three hours, with two intermissions.

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plays through March 9, 2014 at Maryland Ensemble Theatre—31 W. Patrick Street in historic Frederick, MD. For tickets call the box office at (301) 694-4744, or purchase them online.

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