Well before the end of the seemingly endless three hours of vicious invective that is Edge Theater Company’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, I’d have been happy to see George strangle Martha or Martha kill George. And given how stellar the acting is in this production, the scene would have been killer.
Edward Albee’s classic play deals with a tormented marriage. George is an associate professor of history at a small New England college; he has never achieved the academic heights he dreamed of, or even a full professorship. His wife, Martha, is the daughter of the college president, and she never lets George forget his failures. While he at first appears to be the broken partner in the marriage, his passive aggressiveness is soon revealed as a cover for calculating and destructive rage. The play opens in the wee hours, when the couple has just arrived home from a boozy party. Martha reveals that she has invited Nick, a young biology professor, and his wife, Honey, to come over. They arrive. Nick turns out to be smart and confident. He endures George and Martha’s taunts with dignity, and it takes a while before we realize that he might be just as unpleasant a character as his hosts. As for Honey, she’s lost and confused, sometimes waspish and sometimes pathetic — and at all times a brandy-swiller.
The multiple eviscerations take place in three acts, which Albee titled, rather portentously, “Fun and Games,” “Walpurgisnacht” and “The Exorcism.” Martha shames George. George shames Martha. They both, at various times, shame Nick. And everyone except Nick piles onto vulnerable Honey, whose only defense is running off to the bathroom to vomit up her brandy.
Stories are told that may or may not be true, and sometimes those stories are repeated with a changed meaning. Supposedly, Martha’s father — who’s sometimes described as all-powerful and sometimes as a small, red-eyed mouse — prevented George from publishing a novel he’d written because the content was too strong. George’s touching account of the tragic unraveling of a young man’s life may be fiction or truth, may apply to someone he once knew or to himself. The biggest fantasy drives the action: George and Martha’s shared illusion about a blue-eyed son, an illusion that may be the only thing keeping their miserable marriage together.
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Eventually you leave the theater feeling exhausted, wiped out, attacked — and with the characters vivid in your mind. But you also can’t help wondering if anything that happened on stage was worth all the fuss. Some critics point to a broader significance, reminding us that George and Martha are the names of our first president and his wife, and Albee himself has said that Virginia Woolf is a comment on the state of America. At one point, George reads a passage from Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, and his animosity toward Nick is based on his fear that coldly calculating scientists are taking over both the academy and the country. But to me the evening felt airless and self-contained, and I didn’t see much meaning beyond the obvious: a portrait of two messed-up people trapped in a revolting marriage who share a bond so powerful that you might as well call it love.
That wasn’t the fault of the acting: Under Rick Yaconis’s direction, all four performers are first-rate. Emma Messenger’s Martha is bigger than life — loud, impossible, funny and tragic, intense and emotionally naked; she gives the role everything she’s got, and the results are devastating. Scott Bellot’s George is more than capable of holding his own against this hurricane of a woman: He plays to win, ferocious and controlling where his wife stands constantly on the edge of control. James O’Hagan Murphy is the best actor around at portraying moral ambiguity: You start out seeing his Nick as the voice of science and reason, and eventually realize that not only will he do anything to get ahead, but his marriage may be as flawed as George and Martha’s — though the way Murphy plays the final scenes gives a hint of redemption. Maggie Stacy’s Honey is truly original, dopey and fuzzy while every now and then delivering a tiny but accurate mosquito bite — and she also provides the only sincerely touching moment of the entire evening. For these performances alone, the production is worth seeing. But Virginia Woolf also still delivers a hell of a wallop — and a lot of evil laughs.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Presented by Edge Theater Company through August 16, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood, 303-232-0363, theedgetheater.com.