The first names in the mythology of American marriage are George and Martha. For the country’s first 180 years they stood for the Father of Our Country and our first First Lady and reminded us that great lives are even greater when supported in wholesome matrimony. In October 1962, with the Broadway premiere of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, another set of George and Marthas — the Washingtons’ bi-polar opposites — clawed their way to the top tier of marriage folklore and claimed their place as the first family of Marital Strife.
In November 2005, under the direction of Anthony Page, Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner became Broadway’s latest George and Martha. A Ben Brantley benediction opened a box office flood that carried the cast to London in 2006 and then earlier this month into Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre. It arrives here amid much fanfare and trailing awards from those previous stops: a Tony Award for Mr. Irwin, a London Critics Circle Award for Ms. Turner, and Brantley’s New York Times declaration that Ms. Turner, “a movie star whose previous theater work has been variable, finally secures her berth as a first-rate, depth-probing stage actress.”
It is now 45 years since the play’s controversial debut, when it earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama only to have the committee’s more powerful and less courageous members suspend the award that year because of the play’s language. Today, neither the language nor the vituperative husband and wife battles will ruffle audiences used to profanity-spewing, chair-throwing guests common to viewers of Jerry Springer, Dr. Phil, and the like.
Still, Albee’s script leaves a sting. He had much more in mind than the shouting, and while we certainly leave the Ahmanson with an appreciation for the insight he has buried beneath the belligerence, there’s a lingering sense that we are not seeing the definitive Martha. In Turner’s interpretation, she seems particularly saddled with the requirement that she be dominant in every scrap of dialogue. The obvious exception, her Act III opening soliloquy, may be all Albee meant to allow her for significant nuance, but one wishes to somehow catch more of the complexity within this historic character.