You know that feeling you’ve been caught in the crosshairs of something much larger than you anticipated? That’s exactly where Honey and Nick land themselves when Martha and George invite them over to their house following a college faculty party in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee, playing at the Citadel Theatre until February 13.
Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? is one of those theatre classics I’m so glad to have another opportunity to see, having missed it at Walterdale Theatre last year. At a run time of three hours and full of razor-sharp dialogue and insults, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a beast of a play that the Citadel’s production does justice to.
I’ve read Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and I have to say I didn’t understand the appeal of the show upon reading it. As a piece of text, the play is crass, dark, and relentlessly cynical, but under James MacDonald’s direction, I finally understood why it has become such an American classic. As many readers will know, I don’t have education in theatre, so I walked into this show respecting, but not understanding, it’s “classic” standing and walked out thinking, “oh, now I get it.”
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? centres around George and Martha’s marriage, as experienced at their house following a faculty party for the college where George is an associate professor. His is more than just a job, though – it’s family since his wife is the daughter of the dean of the college. Notice how George is an associate professor? Good, so has Martha and she won’t let him forget about it since, going into the marriage, she had much higher expectations and aspirations for him. Seeing him achieve so far below her expectations – and not in any way measure up to her father who she regards so highly – Martha retaliates by constantly berating and embarrassing him.
Martha has invited a young rising star and his wife (Nick and Honey) over for post-party drinks, and the “fun” ensues from there, mostly in the form of absurdist “games” that allow George and Martha a pretence for the verbal and physical shots they take at one another. Meanwhile, Nick and Honey are caught in the crossfire between Martha and George and while we’re seeing what 25 years of an unsatisfactory relationship looks like for the older couple, we’re seeing the beginning of it in the younger couple.
The biggest theme that came through for me in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was the exploration of the structures and unspoken rules that guide relationships. As the evening goes on, we learn more and more about the arrangements both Martha and George and Honey and Nick have created to cope with the unfulfillment in both of their marriages. In both, there’s an element of fantasy and certain rules and norms each must follow to maintain the relationship, despite whether those beliefs and actions are healthy for the participants.
The calibre of the cast and their ability to convey the complex relationships is one of the biggest strengths of the production. Brenda Robins’ portrayal of Martha is powerful and commanding. I loved her portrayal of Martha as both vicious and playful at the same time – lashing out at everyone around her, yet showing glimpses of her vulnerability and deep unhappiness. As the character who, as she says, ‘wears the pants because someone has to,’ in their house and their relationship, Brenda unflinchingly demands to be the centre of attention in this production. As her counterpart, George, I really admired Tom Rooney’s portrayal of a broken-down man who has just enough energy to fight back and participate in the cruel games Martha invents. However much Tom portrays George’s defeatedness though, he still allows the audience to see the scheming George does as an active participant in Martha’s games, not just a victim.
While the dysfunction of George and Martha’s relationship is obvious from the opening moments of the play, it’s less so for Nick and Honey, who start out appearing normal in contrast to George and Martha. Through the nuances actors Jay Clift and Ava Jane Markus bring to their roles though, we eventually see that they are starting down the same path George and Martha have been on for years. In the role of Nick, Jay Clift exudes the demeanour, charisma, and ability to read the room of any good social climber. Through Jay’s portrayal of Nick’s physical, philosophical and attitudinal contrast to Tom Rooney’s George, we see the man Martha always wanted to marry. In the role of the woman Nick actually did marry, Honey, Ava Jane Markus brings a depth to the character that I didn’t understand before. When I read the play before seeing it, I didn’t fully understand Honey’s role – she didn’t seem to have a lot of lines, acted frail and unintelligent, and seemed to be the butt of the joke most of the time she was in a scene. These things are all true, but Ava Jane’s portrayal of Honey brought a different dimension to the character for me. Since Honey has so few lines compared to the other characters, Ava Jane used her facial and bodily expressions to add depth to the character to see her as someone who’s trapped in a world full of societal norms she doesn’t necessarily want to take part in.
The biggest surprise for me about the Citadel’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was how funny it was and how that humour was integrated into the play’s social commentary. When I read Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I put the play down left with the feeling of bitterness and disgust that permeates George and Martha’s relationship. And don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of that in the Citadel’s production. But what I loved about James MacDonald’s lightning fast pacing of the script was the way it allowed the actors to make use of comedic timing. It was one insult or absurd statement after the other with barely a breath in between and you couldn’t help but laugh at the dry way the actors delivered their hateful lines to one another. This ability to bring out the humour in the script that I didn’t see when I read it, is one of the things I appreciated most about the production and helped me understand why it has become an American classic. Certainly, the humour is dark, but it explores dark topics of fantasies gone too far, social climbing, and realising that what you thought you wanted really isn’t at all. So of course it’s dark, but the humour in the script – that the right team can bring out in a well-crafted production like this, is what allows us to explore those dark topics and come out the other side without having lost hope in the world. As I learnt by seeing this production, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a play that has to be experienced – for me, the words on the page are not enough – and the Citadel’s production is one that’s worth experiencing.