Class Warfare

Veteran critic Mel Gussow's fine biography of Edward Albee reveals that most people who knew the artist as a young man had an inkling of his potential but not a clue about his destiny. Nearly all agreed that Albee, whose streak of hedonism could sometimes turn self-destructive, would pursue some kind of creative calling. With the possible exception of Thornton Wilder, though, no one believed that Albee would use his feel for language and ear for music to become a playwright.

But with the phenomenal success of The Zoo Story, Albee showed that he was more than just a clever wordsmith with a flair for the absurd -- the mostly self-taught dramatist proved a keen observer of the human condition. And as is evident in the Shadow Theatre Company's production of Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Albee's best works are often capable of transcending the limitations of time, locale and even race.

Despite the fact that director Jeffrey W. Nickelson's approach would benefit from a more robust pace overall, his updated version of Albee's 1962 play about a married couple's warring ways is more than just a diatribe about academia or dysfunctional relationships. As performed by a solid cast, the three-hour production illuminates the strange, inevitably destructive alchemy that occurs when paltry ambition is mixed with larger-than-life fear.

The "Fun and Games," as Act One is titled, begin the moment that George (Hugo Jon Sayles) and his wife, Martha (Sheila Ivy Traister), barrel through the front door of their modish home. A professor who's marooned midway between the realms of Unpromotable and Can't Retire Yet, George gets his jollies by sparring -- both literally and figuratively -- with Martha, the braying daughter of the president of the college where "Swampy," as she refers to George, toils in the history department's muck and mire. As the play begins, we learn that Martha has invited an athletic-looking biology professor, Nick (Cajardo R. Lindsey) and his twentysomething wife, Honey (Kimberly Beatrice McWilliams), to her home for cocktails. Coming as it does on the heels of yet another tired (and obligatory) college function, George initially objects to Martha's midnight surprise.

When the new arrivals show up on his doorstep, however, George sees his opportunity to take out some frustrations on a freshman faculty member and his dippy spouse. Unfortunately, so does Martha, who dons a come-hither outfit and makes a psycho-sexual beeline for Nick's muscular frame. During Act Two, which is called "Walpurgisnacht," or "Witch's Night," the quartet mixes drinks and trades insults with mounting ferocity. By the time Act Three rolls around, the simultaneous free-flow of alcohol and personal revelations results in "The Exorcism," a harrowing war of words that peaks with near-apocalyptic fury.

While Sayles occasionally loses his momentum during climactic episodes, he manages to sustain George's seething anger throughout. Just when it seems as though he'll quietly fade into the blandness of George's distinctly separate sitting area, Sayles delivers a couple of remarks that indicate his formidable combat readiness. It's a bear of a role that, overall, Sayles renders with an intriguing combination of strength and despair. And both Lindsey and McWilliams negotiate their characters' scenes of intense volatility with admirable aplomb.

The most remarkable performance, though, comes from Traister. Although the character of Martha is typically portrayed as a repressed, menopausal beast trapped within George's dust-filled library of a home, Traister takes a different tack that, within the context of director Nickelson's contemporary setting, proves just as valid. No longer a nubile beauty yet very much in her prime, Traister's Martha is the quintessentially self-centered woman whose aim isn't so much to have it all -- by the looks of her tastefully furnished living room, she leads quite a comfortable life -- but to destroy anything and everything that eludes her selfish grasp. As a result, her frequent battles with George are fueled more by the bitterness of greedy, unrequited desires than by the hopelessness of a tenure-stalled, dead-end way of life. Though that distinction seems minor at first, Traister's unflinching portrayal colors Albee's 37-year-old play with a thick tincture of Nineties commentary.

So do a few racially charged comments, which, as scripted, have always seemed more like the inconsequential flotsam of WASPy conversation instead of, as uttered here by a multiracial cast of actors, verbal buoys signaling undercurrents of antipathy. (Traister is Asian-American; the other three performers are African-American.) It seems acceptable enough for a bunch of white characters to poke fun at each other's quaint sayings or speech patterns, but when Sayles and Traister assume dialects and behavior that are reminiscent of black stereotypes, their contempt for their guests suddenly becomes as searing and offensive as if they'd nicknamed them Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemimah.

Ultimately, though, Nickelson's casting choices adroitly underscore the fact that the power dynamics in Albee's drama are based more on the content of one's character than the color of one's skin. Which is as much a testament to Albee's playwrighting genius as it is to Nickelson and company's bold, if sometimes lurching, reinterpretation of a modern classic.

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Jim Lillie