A sampling of the audio from the packed house should serve as ample description for Ford’s Theatre’s stunning new production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: raucous laughter, groans and sighs, the occasional sharp intake of breath. Director Aaron Posner delivers a Virginia Woolf that is as gut punching, razor sharp, and pitch black hilarious as when it first smashed on to the American theatre scene in 1962. Hardly seeming dated at all, this twisted comedy of no-manners slashes and burns its way across the Ford’s stage at a pace that seems to defy its three hour running time. The cast, led by the extraordinary Holly Twyford and Gregory Linington, is a must, must, must see this winter.
Bedecked with awards, Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? is possibly the most famous drama by the late, great Edward Albee. But in the hands of director Posner and his fabulous cast, the work is fresh and agile, not ponderously burdened by its own illustrious history. The tale of George and Martha, a forty-something couple in an academic town who entertain a doomed evening for guests Nick and Honey, is tricky to pull off for any cast. How exactly to work with Albee’s minute handling of language, his light play of fact versus fiction, illusion versus reality? As the night becomes more alcoholic and George and Martha’s train wreck of a marriage becomes more horribly apparent, the tension boils over and simmers down in a dance that repeats all the way to the shocking end. It is an act as delicate as any classical ballet, and Ford’s production executes to a tee.
The twin engines that drive this powerhouse production are Greogry Linington as George and Holly Twyford as Martha. By turns tragic and hilarious, vicious and pitiful, the two are grippingly compelling from their first moments on stage to their last. Twyford, in a Liz Taylor wig and sporting an ever present gin on the rocks, is nothing short of monumental as the flawed, deluded, complicated Martha. And Linington is masterful as George, a man who takes passive aggression to the level of an art form. What is most striking about Twyford and Linington is not, however, the gladiatorial pleasure they seem to receive in tearing each other down – it is in those subtle and revealing moments of connectedness they display that help to explain why on earth these people are still together after all they done to each other.
Although George and Martha get the juiciest bits of Albee’s script, the other half of the cast is excellent as well. Nick and Honey (Danny Gavigan and Maggie Wilder, respectively) are the doomed initiates to George and Martha’s ritual marital bloodbath. Gavigan is particularly adept at playing the long, slow, increasingly haggard arc from polite guest to traumatized victim. Wilder, as the Mad Men housewife Honey, is a breath of fresh air in a play that often needs someone to open a metaphorical window, and her delivery is unerringly hilarious.
This production of Woolf has some very interesting design elements, particularly the scenic design by Meghan Rahm. Taking literally the idea of looking into a slice of life, the set is as though someone chopped a house right in two. Not only do we see the traditional drawing room, bit of hallway, and stairs of a play like this, we also see the insulation between the walls, the brick foundation underneath the floor, and the support beams holding up the roof. In other words, it is clear from the beginning that we are going to be seeing the inside of this thing, guts and all. The stage is lit well by Jesse Belsky (I particularly enjoyed a cool blue downstage effect), the foreboding sound design is by Daniel Kluger, and the fine costumes are by Kelsey Hunt.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? makes us uncomfortable in all the right ways. It makes a mockery of the notion that bourgeois intellectual culture has any claim to moral superiority and it provokes us to ask ourselves how honest we are in our own relationships. We are all of us afraid of something. This play teaches us how to go through without turning off all the lights.
Running Time: 3 hours, with two ten minute intermissions.