With the theater community still mourning the loss of one of its greatest voices, it’s a bittersweet irony that one of Edward Albee’s rarely staged pieces, Marriage Play, is opening at San Antonio’s Classic Theatre this coming Friday. Tim Hedgepeth, the director, was kind enough to provide his insight into the play, his thoughts about the great man himself, and – above all – why words are so important.
What do you think will be Edward Albee’s enduring legacy in the theater?
Great question. I’ve directed other works of Albee’s prior to Marriage Play – Virginia Woolf and The Goat. For me, with Albee, it always comes back to his language. In this play, for example, we have two people who, after 30-odd years of marriage, are trying to make sense of the meaning of it all, prompted by the husband’s declaration to his wife that he intends to leave her. The dialogue, through which they negotiate this maddening, puzzling, rage-fueled discussion, is extraordinarily rich.
And it’s very typical of Albee’s work in its phrasing, its sentence structure and its intellect, of course. It’s got his trademark pauses, his off-the-cuff and very dismissive cultural references – and then these beautiful soaring speeches that reach deep into the characters’ lives and breaking hearts. No one has ever written like him, and I doubt there will be a voice like his in American theater for many years to come.
If you read the reviews of this play – and there aren’t many, because it’s seldom produced – they refer to it as “Beckett-Style” or “Pinter-esque.” I think that’s too easy an out to describe the language of this play. It’s very much Albee’s own. It’s very, very rich and very poetic, and not a single word is unimportant.
From the description, it sounds like a pretty mordant piece, but are there instances of Albee’s corrosive humor?
Absolutely. And the thing about his humor, which I love, is that it always takes you by surprise. You never see a joke coming. You never see a punchline coming. The humor, the caustic wit, articulated so beautifully and with his economic use of words, is so unexpected. To a certain extent, it really does almost subversively keep the audience listening. It’s a minefield. The jokes, the humor coming out of the mouths of two ridiculously intelligent people, is just gut-bustingly funny.
Why do you think the play is so infrequently staged?
If you look at your Albee biography, [this play] came after the great successes of Virginia Woolf, A Delicate Balance and Tiny Alice. It falls in that period prior to his great resurgence with Three Tall Women, The Goat, The Play About the Baby – those final great plays.
I honestly believe that it is an overlooked work, and quite possibly the subject matter could be a little troubling for audiences. I say that, knowing that at their core many of his plays deal with troubled relationships, long-suppressed anger, desire – whatever. This one, however, is so economical. You come in, you experience an hour in the lives of these two people that distills an entire marriage into that short period of time. The truths that they fling at each other and the discoveries are sometimes not so pleasant to listen to. The characters reveal themselves in a way that is not quite as theatrical as, say, George and Martha in Virginia Woolf or Stevie and Martin in The Goat.
A simple answer would be that the subject matter might possibly cut too close to home. Granted, I have no idea of the personal histories the audiences will be bringing with them when they watch the show, but it’s a tough piece. It’s beautifully written, but it may disturb some people in how sharply it reveals the sadness of a bad marriage that couples sometimes stay in their entire lives, for one reason or another.
It’s safe to assume you were a big fan of the man.
Albee is, and always will be, one of my favorite playwrights, and I so respect his mastery of language that I almost don’t feel equipped to talk about him. I want my words and what I say to you to be as trenchant and spot-on as his writing, which is of course a ridiculous goal, but I’m thinking, “Honor the man, for God’s sake. He just passed!” When we were preparing the play, we were about two weeks into our actual rehearsals, and one Friday night I picked up my phone and saw three different news alerts all saying, “Edward Albee, master playwright, dead at 88.” It was so shocking. His words had just been running all around in my head.
Tell us about your actors.
Andy [Thornton] and Catherine [Babbitt] are consummate professionals. They’re great actors and they always give 110 percent. Each rehearsal yields new discoveries because they do the work. They come to each rehearsal prepared, having thought about what we did the night before, and they’re ready to take us a step or two further. I’m really inspired by their talent and I relish the pleasure of their company. It’s a wonderful opportunity to come to rehearsal and watch my actors get better every night, not necessarily because of something I’ve done, but something we’ve done collaboratively. Or – more importantly – what they’ve done individually, thinking about their characters and being off-book so very early in the process.
When you’re working with certain playwrights, Albee being one of them, the sooner you can get off-book to really work that language and find all its nuances and its cadences, it’s something you can’t do with a script in your hand. So Andy and Catherine are just great – period.
And as a director, you almost conduct Albee.
Yes. What’s really interesting is when you get hold of scripts from Samuel French or Dramatists, oftentimes there are stage manager’s notes and stuff that may suggest blocking and certain other things, but Albee parenthetically gives his actors a lot of notes. Tennessee Williams does this as well, and it’s very helpful. You know these are not stage manager’s notes from the original production. This is the playwright’s voice gently coaxing an actor into perhaps considering a line reading this way.
Many people don’t know that Albee was also a director who famously (and sometimes infamously) directed his own plays. So you can see him writing his works from a director’s POV as well; it makes the journey so much more interesting. With his notes, it’s almost as if we have him in the room with us, saying “Why don’t you try the line this way?” It’s a gift to any actor and certainly the director. It’s not intrusive – it simply helps to define and refine the musicality of his writing.
Marriage Play plays October 7, 8, 13, 14, 15, 16, 20, 21 and 22 at 8 p.m. and October 9, 16 and 23 at 3 p.m. at the Classic Theatre, 1924 Fredericksburg Road. Reservations can be made online or by calling (210) 589-8450.