It doesn’t take long for things to turn sour in Edward Albee’s landmark play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Any semblance of nicety is pretty much gone 20 minutes in, making way for an exhausting three-hour slog of hectoring and head games. Albee’s wicked creativity is well-documented in the play’s litany of bitterly hilarious insults, but its greatness lies in its incisive portrait of its relationships. That quality is perhaps best exemplified in scenes where only one character is onstage. When there are multiple characters, the barbs hardly stop flying, but when there’s just one, he or she can only stomach the solitude for seconds, eventually screaming out, wondering where everyone else has gotten off to. These people can barely stand each other, but they sure seem to need each other nonetheless.
Seattle Rep was established only a year after Albee’s play premiered in 1962, and yet their current production is the first time the theater has staged Virginia Woolf. Worth the wait? You bet, although Pamela Reed and R. Hamilton Wright were probably better suited for Martha and George a decade ago. Despite the age issue, this is a dream pairing of two fantastic actors in two iconic roles.
Reed is blisteringly funny as Martha, the daughter of a university president who makes no attempt at hiding her disappointment in her underachieving husband, only a lowly associate history professor. Martha offers an actor copious opportunities to tear into scenes, but Reed finds lots of subtleties among the show-stopping vicious outbursts. Reed’s wry distance is one of her greatest qualities as an actor, and it adds a welcome level of self-awareness to Martha here.
Wright, often a genial presence, brings some of that to George, making for a man whose cruelties are so deftly delivered, one doesn’t notice they’ve been sliced until an entire limb falls off. Between about 300 trips to the bar, Wright devolves from bitterly sarcastic to maniacally enraged, drunk on the control his manipulative mind games give him over his wife.
Sharing the stage with two forces of nature can’t be easy, and Aaron Blakely and Amy Hill mostly keep up as Nick and Honey, the younger couple caught in the crossfire and forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about their own marriage. Blakely’s performance is annoyed and brittle, leading one to wonder why he doesn’t just get the hell out of there in the first act, and making his later succumbing to Martha’s wiles especially unconvincing.
Director Braden Abraham opts for frequently static compositions — there’s little need for significant movement when the dialogue provokes a maelstrom all on its own — in Matthew Smucker’s beautifully detailed scenic design, a Midcentury vision of hell itself. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs through May 18. Tickets are available for purchase online.
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