On one level, Who¹s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a very literate and sophisticated Jerry Springer show. George and Martha are a longtime married couple. He's a history professor at a small New England college whose career is far less glittering than he'd once hoped it would be; she's the daughter of the college president, unable to let the subject of his failure die. On this particular night, Martha has invited a younger couple over for drinks, even though it's late and they've all just left a booze-sodden party. Nick is a promising young biology professor, Honey his strange little wife.
Paragon Theatre's program quotes Edward Albee's description of his 1962 play as "an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, and emasculation and vacuity...." But that's not how it strikes me. George does have some portentous speeches about the homogeneity and mediocrity that threaten his world, and we do eventually realize that Nick — who represents the future — is an uglier and meaner-spirited soul than his host. Still, it's hard to imagine that a reality shaped by Nick would be any more repulsive than the one we're witnessing — and anyway, George's drunken, self-pitying words don't carry much credibility. Virginia Woolf is less social commentary than a sharply focused study of the disintegration of one particular marriage. Most of us have seen relationships like George and Martha's, though never one in which the protagonists are blessed — or cursed — with so much eloquence. Miserable couples tend to mystify outsiders. Why does he put up with her manipulations and insults? Why does she tolerate his bullying? Apparently, because if your soul is empty, bullying and manipulation can seem to fill it — can even feel like love.
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Of course, Albee is a genius, and his play provides far more than an evening of voyeurism and the self-righteous pleasure of being shocked by the bad behavior of others. George and Martha are fascinatingly complex characters. There's something magnificent about the unbridled rage that surges through their home. And they do love each other. Their love and hatred are like the twinned images in those round children's toys: Hold the circle one way and you see a caterpillar, slant it another and there's a butterfly; love, hate, a blur that could be either, hate again. Oh, love.
Nick and Honey's nasty little contradictions are interesting, too, and fun to attempt to unravel. The brilliant dialogue sweeps you along for the play's three squirm-inducing hours: torrential, lurid, passionate, high-pitched, occasionally revelatory. George likes to descant on the way truth and illusion twist around each other, and one of the play's themes concerns the narratives we spin about our lives. George and Martha have stories that make their marriage bearable, providing concepts they can share or weaving illusions that protect each of them from the bitter nihilism of the other. Martha's daddy is strong and noble. Or he's a twitchy, red-eyed mouse. George inadvertently killed his own parents. Well, if he didn't, someone must once have done something like that. George wrote a novel that Martha's father prevented him from publishing. Perhaps. George and Martha have a blue-eyed son. Wrong, says George: The boy is dead.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Presented by Paragon Theatre through August 11, Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive, 303-300-2210, www.paragontheatre.org.
Warren Sherrill directs with a sure and respectful hand, evidenced in such small details as the real snapdragons used for one scene and in the large talents of his cast, who find every one of the script's possible nuances. You can't help admiring Martha Harmon Pardee's vitality and sheer, all-stops-out courage as Martha. Although you wouldn't want to know her personally, you rather like this woman. She's funny, smart, thoughtful and, in her own way, honest. It's fascinating to watch her agile mind at work as she observes and assesses the others. She's also wrenchingly vulnerable. Sam Gregory's George seems at first the weaker of the two antagonists: a passive-aggressive man whose wife's torrents of abuse have left him in a permanent mental crouch. But it doesn't take long to figure out that George is a deadly opponent. These two have been fighting forever; it's what they do instead of sex. Their sparring has the precision of a fencing match, except that there's blood on the foils, and clinging gobbets of flesh.
Ed Cord plays Nick as a blankly pleasant young man, who little by little reveals his soulless ambition. I've seen Honey portrayed as simply a scared little bunny, but Barbra Andrews gives her a small edge of spite. These two are heading for a marriage as miserable as that of George and Martha, but without the bitter, twisted love that offers at least the faintest possibility of redemption.