Sunday, October 14, 2018

Superb “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” @ Beck Center

Edward Albee, author of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” now in production at Beck Center for the Arts, is one of the best known Theatre of the Absurd American writers.  This form of theatre, which was at its apex shortly following World War II, is based, in part on philosophical existentialism, which asks “what is the purpose of existence?”  

Absurdist playwrights create instances in which the characters are caught in hopeless situations and repeat meaningless actions.  The stories often highlight individuals who seem to have no purpose in life and are caught where their communication breaks down. 

Albee, who was adopted at an early age, led a life of luxury, but was seemingly denied love by parents who didn’t really know how to raise a child.  They gave him the opportunity to go to the finest schools, but never bonded with him.  His background is often credited with his hostile view of society and loving relationships.

Albee’s writing career has been filled with highlights.  He received three Pulitzer Prizes for drama--“A Delicate Balance” (1967), “Seascape” (1975), and “Three Tall Women” (1994), which recently completed an award winning revival on Broadway. 

Interestingly, his “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” considered to be his greatest work, was not honored with a Pulitzer.  It was selected for the award by the drama jury, but the advisory committee, with no explanation, overruled the selection and gave no award that year.  Rumor was that Albee’s open gay life style was repugnant to the conservative board.   It is interesting that Albee, himself, states “I am not a gay writer.  I am a writer that happens to be gay.”

Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is a classic example of absurdist writing.  It contains biting dialogue highlighting the dysfunctional relationship between two people who seemingly have only one purpose…the psychological destruction of each other.

The play centers on Martha and George.  He is a seemingly inept professor at the small New England college whose President is Martha’s father.  The duo has been married for many years, use alcohol to escape from their miserable existence and play word games to torture not only themselves, but anyone else who enters their chaotic home. 

One evening, after a faculty party, a young couple, Nick, a new Biology instructor, and his wife, Honey, are invited by Martha, to come over for drinks (and “games”).  Little do they know the verbal torture session that is about to take place. 

Alcohol flows freely, secrets are exposed, and the result is an emotional bloodbath.  Each horrific episode is keyed or ended with George and/or Martha’s repetition of the words, “who is afraid of Virginia Woolf” chanted to the tune of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” from Disney’s “Three Little Pigs.”  

Written in 1962, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” has three fairly long acts.  

The first act entitled “Fun and Games,” lays the foundation for what is to come through a series of verbal, physical and emotional expository revelations.  The writing of the first act is often “hailed as some of the greatest in all of the American theatre.” 

The second act, “Walpurgisnacht,” takes its theme from the night that witches meet and Satan appears. 

In the final stanza, “The Exorcism,” takes place through the evicting of demons and other spiritual entities from a person or area through an elaborate ritual.  In this script, a ritual of verbal blood-letting.

The Beck production is superbly and sensitively directed by Donald Carrier.  The staging, the pacing, the development of uncomfortable humor, and the acting, are all well-focused.  The tension often gets nearly unbearable. 

The audience laughs and wonders why they would be expressing such a positive emotion to such terrible verbal destruction.  The ending leaves both the audience and the actors exhausted.

At the final blackout, the audience was totally quiet, in shock and fatigue.  Finally, a first person clapped.  Then the extended applause was thunderous.

Uta Hagen, who played Martha in the original Broadway production, indicated that playing the role of Martha was like having a nervous breakdown every night.  In fact, the strain was so much on the actors, that a separate cast played the matinees.

Having seen the original cast, on the first night of my honeymoon, no less, I can attest to not only the brilliance of Hagen, and her costar, Arthur Hill, but to the utter emotional high of the experience.  (My wife, on the way home from the Beck performance said, “It’s been 55 years and I still can picture every instance of that production.”)

The role of George is usually a tirade of strong emotion.     Michael Mauldin does not take that approach.  He is like a sword fighter, jabbing and thrusting to take advantage of his opponent’s weaknesses.  He is a stealth of power who puts on the role of George and never takes it off.

Derdriu Ring, one of the area’s premiere actresses, embodies the sexy boozed Martha.   She spews venom, creating a Martha to be reckoned with.  A viper whose every bite carries poison.  This is an emotionally-injured-women who takes out her angst on everyone in her presence.   

Handsome Daniel Telford is excellent as Nick, the young professor who was coerced into marriage by a “pregnant” Honey, she of wealth and beauty.
When Martha attempts to seduce him, in spite of his having “the physical potential,” Telford displays deep vulnerability due to his lack of ability to sexually perform.

Becca Ciamacco is appropriately emotionally and physically fragile as Honey.  She performs well the role of the hypochondriac with obvious issues.

Aaron Benson‘s well-executed unkempt living room set helps enhance the psychological messiness of George and Martha.

Capsule judgment:  Kudos to Don Carrier for his bullseye direction of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”  This is about as perfect a production as the script could receive.  If you have never seen the Albee masterpiece on stage, see it now!  You won’t have another chance to experience such a wonderfully crafted piece of theater.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” runs Friday through Sundays through November 4, 2018 in Beck’s Studio Theatre.  For tickets call 216-521-2540 or go to