As we all know by now, the territory Edward Albee plops his four characters into, in this venom-spewing play, is the equivalent of a 40-acre pit of quicksand. The harder they try to struggle free, the deeper they sink. Until dawn comes and everyone skulks off to try and reestablish the lies they live by, day to day.
Yes, Virginia Woolf is all about the fibs we tell ourselves, and each other, and what would happen if we could no longer wrap ourselves in their comfortable folds. Seemingly placid George and his wife, the sexy and braying Martha are the ultimate pairing of tarantula and scorpion, stripping each other of their protective lies and dragging their young guests, Nick and Honey, down with them.
The thrust and parry games that Albee invents in this play, lubricated with much alcohol and fueled by fantasies, are always fascinating to watch. And it is equally fascinating to see how four actors can bring these deliriously flawed characters to life, for it is no small challenge.
In this production, George and Martha are portrayed by Gregory Violand and Molly McGinnis, and they have moments where the sparks truly fly. The gray-bearded Violand exudes a sort of exhausted disinterest as this college professor whose career has stalled completely. But he is brought to battling life, as the play continues, after Martha keeps prodding him with insults and ultimately reveals their one closely-held secret. Violand gets stronger and more interesting as the play goes on.
As Martha, McGinnis is suitably hard-edged and even quite vulnerable at times, but she doesn’t radiate the Earth Mother sensuousness that her character requires. Indeed, there is a rather sterile quality to many of George and Martha’s interchanges. Martha is driven by the lack of success of her husband, at the college where her father is the president, and that is galling to her. That rage, combined with their complicated issues on the offspring front, should fuel more bile and viciousness from her.
Their guests at this late evening psychological death match include the delicate and frequently upchucking Honey (Katie Nabors in blonde ditz mode) and her long-suffering husband Nick (a well-modulated Daniel Simpson), who also teaches at the college. As a couple, they have their own secrets that George and Martha exploit with relish.
It must be noted that all the actors are facing an enormous obstacle in the minimalist scenic design of Kristen Nicole and director Martin Friedman. In his program notes, Friedman mounts a defense of this approach, which eliminates almost all the trappings of a typical mid-level professor’s house in favor of several platforms at different levels and precious few set pieces or props. These include a small bar with bottles, ice bucket and glasses, along with a few books, pillows, shoes and other detritus left artfully disarrayed around the stage.
While this bare bones approach can work with some shows, Virginia Woolf is different. We need to see the “stuff” of their life to get a sense of how completely stuck they are in their comfortable misery. And just for practicality sake, it helps to have items on the set so that actors can move from one place to another (to sit in an easy chair, to look at a picture) instead of just roaming back and forth and sitting wherever.
Plus, with the actors often speaking to each other from different levels and across a wide expanse of stage, the intimacy of the play is reduced and the pressure the actors can exert on each other is thereby softened. In a way, it would have almost been better to go totally minimalist—just four stools on a small section of the stage—instead of splitting the difference.
That said, Friedman is a deft and nuanced director, and he manages to cadge some shivers of revulsion from this classic play. And as always, Albee’s words carry the day, taking us on a fraught journey through an evening of barely civilized confrontation, showing us how our illusions can either protect us or destroy us.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Through October 4 at Lakeland Civic Theatre, Lakeland Community College Campus, just south of Rt. 90 and Rt. 306 in Kirtland, 440-525-7134.