Colonial Players of Annapolis may be in its 68th season, but the production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opening October 21, 2016, will be its first regular season production from the Edward Albee canon. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to direct this American classic at the same theater where I first cut my directing teeth, but there is also some sad irony in the coincidence of the show opening so soon after Albee’s death.
At the rehearsal on the day after his passing, I felt two successive shifts in energy. The first was a little bit spooky. Knowing his prickly reputation and his insistence that his works not be messed with, I wondered for a moment if he was now hovering over us, haunting us, passing judgment on my directorial choices or trying to catch one of the actors in a misspoken line.
As an aside – I confess that I still feel a twinge anytime I say something like, “Yes, well, we’re not following his exact stage direction there,” or, “I think I’d like to try it this way.” I don’t presume to know better than Albee; I can only interpret the show and his intentions in the way that also works best for this theater and these actors…and yet, with Albee, it still feels like editing the Ten Commandments. (What? You think he didn’t believe his words were etched in stone?)
Later in that rehearsal, though, the second shift in energy arrived, and while it still felt like a looming sense of responsibility to “get it right,” it had a more positive and energizing feel to it. Instead of pressing in on us, the energy was now bursting to get out, flowing from these characters in torrents over the rocky, whitewater rapids of George and Martha’s relationship until the actors reached calmer waters at the end.
And that has driven us ever since. Debbie Barber-Eaton, who plays Martha, calls the role “every actor’s dream – what an opportunity to stretch and test every bit of one’s ability. I am fascinated by Martha’s emotional range, by her journey, by her relationship with George. It has been delicious to get inside her brain, her marriage and her heart.” She continued, “I am seduced, thrilled and dazzled by Albee’s heightened language.”
A few years ago, when I directed my first Albee play (The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? at Silver Spring Stage), the assistant director pleaded, “Don’t forget the chocolate chips in the cookie dough,” meaning that I should not overlook the humor. It’s one of the best pieces of advice for anyone looking to direct or act in an Albee play.
Harold Pinter once said of Albee, “I think what is one of the most pronounced ingredients in his work is mischief.” And Director Anthony Page referred to Albee’s wit as “the awful humour in the darkest things.” Ultimately, though, the ability to laugh allows the audience the possibility of hope. “Every one of my plays is an act of optimism,” Albee said, “because I make the assumption that it is possible to communicate with other people.”
At its core, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a love story. Yes, terrible things will happen during this long evening when George and Martha let their demons out. Truth and illusion will fight a fierce, pitched battle, and the stakes – the very survival of a marriage – could not be higher. It’s brutal and funny and poignant and sometimes ugly, but that is because they still have something to fight for.
“All plays,” said Albee in 2004, “If they’re any good, are constructed as correctives. That’s the job of the writer. Holding that mirror up to people.” Albee was a master at that. We’ve had a great time working on this show. It’s an honor to be entrusted with his words. I can only hope he doesn’t mind too much.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf plays from October 21-November 12, 2016, at The Colonial Players of Annapolis – 108 East Street, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 268-7373, or purchase them online.