The Colonial Players of Annapolis’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, directed by Craig Allen Mummey and written by the late Edward Albee, brings the audience on a journey through the breakdown of two marriages and the complete emotional destruction of four people. It begins “pleasantly” enough, when ascorbic hosts Martha and George have a younger couple over for drinks after a party; but as the two grow angrier and angrier with each other, they use their guests as pawns in a bigger game of who can hurt the other more. Ultimately, the story lays bare the rocky foundations that all marriages stand on, from fidelity to family to what is fundamentally true. And, of course, it incorporates a seemingly infinite amount of alcohol.
Barbara Colburn set, featuring mid-1900s furnishings, lays the scene well with just the barest hint, aesthetically, that something is amiss. Alex Brady’s lighting follows the story, moving steadily from the original all encompassing brightness to something that matches the emotional nuance of the play as things change, a mix of blue and red and light and shadow. Everything works wonderfully with the in-the-round seating, providing a deeper intimacy as one stares into the darker parts of the couples’ private lives. But where the production really grabs you, and refuses to let go, is in the marvelous performances given by each of the actors.
Ron Giddings gives Nick a fantastic capacity for awkwardness that transforms over the evening to bravado, anger, arrogance, lust, and an intense tiredness. Giddings expertly balances all of these, creating a character that is both sympathetic and repulsive, an Übermensch and a boy-toy, selfish and kind all at once.
Joe Mariano’s growth as George is fascinating, from a tired old beta, little more than a ghost, to a colossus seething with anger and desperation and sadness, someone who is tired of being small and stepped on, who has finally snapped and is ready to fight back with all he has. The audience can feel the raw pain that flows off of him just as we can sense the still rage that burns inside; his is not a performance that requires motion to be seen.
Sarah Wade masterfully personifies Honey, the sweet, childlike wife of Nick who falls apart over the evening as a steady stream of brandy eats at her facade. Her doll-face, perfect housewife smile gives the audience to peak beneath the surface, to the underlying discontent, up until it breaks open. Wade’s performance maintains a vibrance full of personality that one so rarely sees in this kind of character, and her ability to draw forth empathy from the audience, empathy for this young woman who dances like the wind and who is an innocent caught up in this heartless war, is incredible.
And, of course, the most brilliant performance of the evening, amongst three other brilliant performances, is Debbie Barber-Eaton as Martha. Martha is a witch with a tongue like a knife who oscillates between mischievous and hateful and falsely happy. She is vulgar and she is loud and she is uncertain, but she is also not ashamed of who she is. She is human and refuses to be labeled monster. She is trapped in her own world but so desperately wants to not be alone anymore. Barber-Eaton paints a picture of a woman who is tormented by her failing marriage, by what she wants but doesn’t have, by what she has but thinks she doesn’t deserve, who is full of pain and who in the end is left broken, the disdain and malevolence stripped away, leaving only grief.
And while each actor gives us immensely flawed, vivid, real characters, we are also given a host of immensely flawed, vivid, real relationships, everyone trying desperately to connect to one another but all failing miserably. The most engrossing of these relationships is that between Martha and George, a ballet of destruction from which it is impossible to look away. They love each other so much but so desperately want to hate each other, or perhaps it is the other way around. Their love-hatred shines blindingly bright and consumes everything in its path.
The amazing cast of The Colonial Players’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? builds up tension so slowly you almost don’t notice till it becomes explosive, and the cracks that are revealed are devastating. Martha and George are like goblins and Nick and Honey are their unwitting victims, and this little drinking-circle’s slow descent into hell is unforgettable.
Running Time: Three hours and 40 minutes, with two intermissions.