When Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” premiered in 1962, it exploded the myths of American family life as depicted by television shows such as “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.” Half a century later, it is still a disturbing play, uncomfortable to watch and in places difficult to understand.
Some of the symbolism may be lost on modern audiences, and some of the emotions may seem overblown. But people who attend the Lakewood Playhouse performance forewarned of the harsh themes and language will be treated to brilliant dialogue and powerful acting.
The entire three-act play takes place in the living room of George and Martha (who have no last name and are intentionally named after the first president and his wife). It is two o’clock in the morning. They’ve just come home from a party at Martha’s father’s house, are already inebriated, and Martha surprises George by letting him know she has invited the new couple in town, Nick and Honey, to join them for what turns out to be an all-night binge of drinking and sniping at one another.
It begins with uncomfortable barbed wit and degenerates into venomous attacks. The first act is more humorous than disturbing. Steve Tarry, playing George, is particularly funny as he hits everyone with zingers dryly delivered. He is hilarious, but there is no hiding his anger. Brynne Garman as Martha shouts and staggers so outrageously that in any other play she would be seen as chewing the scenery, but that is precisely the kind of outrageous character Martha is, and Garman nails it.
Nick (Niclas R. Olson) is the all-American boy: handsome, strong, intelligent and poised for success — everything that George had hoped to be but has long since given up on. Olson plays him in an understated manner in the first act, but as the play progresses, he becomes increasingly emotional. Honey (played by Lakewood Playhouse newcomer Kirsten Deane) is described as mousey and not overly bright. Deane plays her as not so mousey but easily dumbfounded and overly eager to please.
The acting throughout is outstanding. Tarry does an amazing job of portraying George as lovable even when he is destroying everyone, including himself. My one reservation about his acting is that he downs prodigious amounts of alcohol without ever appearing inebriated, even as the other three are falling down drunk. Garman is slatternly and volatile, and she believably changes emotions in a flash. Both Olson and Deane convincingly react to a situation their characters do not know how to handle as they gradually let their inner feelings come out.
There is much about the play that is not easy to understand, such as why George attacks Nick so viciously and the hidden meaning of a story told. And what is the big secret about George and Martha’s son? Why is he so adamant that she should never mention “the boy”?
The answers to these conundrums are not revealed until the end, and even when they are revealed, they are not completely clear. It may help to know that these stories may be as symbolic as they are real, but that is for each viewer to decide.
The play is performed in the round with excellent views from three of the four seating sections; the play is not blocked well for the back section, which is why tickets for those seats are being held until all others are filled.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is a tough and demanding play well acted and well directed by Larry Albert. It is a long play at three hours, and it can be emotionally draining. It is a play that is seldom produced, and it is much edgier than Lakewood Playhouse’s usual fare, which I applaud.
‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 2
Where: Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood
Tickets: $25 for adults, $22 for military, $21 for seniors, and $19 for students and educators
Information: 253-588-0042, lakewoodplayhouse.orgCheck Alec’s blog at alecclayton.blogspot.com for reviews of other area theatrical productions. Coming this month are reviews of “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” at Harlequin Productions and “My Brother Kissed Mark Zukerberg” at Dukesbay Theater.