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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

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David Sinaiko, Josh Schell, Megan Trout, Beth Wilmurt. Photo by Jessica Palipoli.

“Truth and illusion, George – you don’t know the difference.”

“No [Martha], but we must carry on as though we did.”

“Amen!”

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David Sinaiko, Josh Schell. Photo by Jessica Palipoli.

And so it is, that the angst of two couples’ lives derive from self-deception in Edward Albee’s darkly comic masterpiece, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” Director Mark Jackson has assembled a superb cast that exposes the damaged inner lives of four troubled souls – one couple whose opportunities have soured and the other who are hopeful of continued ascent at a new stage in life. With a three-hour running time, the play is lengthy, but the biting script and the involved actors are fully engaging, making every minute rewarding.

The year is 1962, the cusp between the optimistic but naive ’50s and the turbulent ’60s, with its unprecedented threats to social order. The social mores of the day are still distinctly of the earlier period, however fractured in the enclave of the evening’s events.

George is on the faculty of a small college and hasn’t achieved his potential. Wife Martha is the daughter of the president of the college, which she hoped George would someday head. But they have become dysfunctional, wretched inebriates, constantly bickering and degrading one another. One can feel their physical and intellectual horizons crowding out their future.

Nick is a newly-arrived biology professor. To George’s displeasure, Martha has invited Nick and wife Honey to come over for drinks after a faculty party at the president’s house. What ensues is an all-night binge that can be characterized as emotionally abusive mutual entrapment. Characters’ vulnerabilities are laid bare by revealing exposures of their illusions.

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Beth Wilmurt, David Sinaiko. Photo by Jessica Palipoli.

 

The cast interacts as if they are really connected with one another, and they create a believable hostility. David Sinaiko wears George well. Downtrodden from his failures, George’s despair and his need to attack with acid wit to compensate for his weak defenses are captured by Sinaiko. His glum, slumping vacuousness is palpable. As Martha, Beth Wilmurt carries herself with a greater sense of pride, dignity, and hope. Wilmurt projects a personality that is more caring and yearning for human contact. Although her Martha is a little whiny, she is quite caustic.  She also proves capable of going toe-to-toe with George and convincingly insists that she wears the pants in the family.

Josh Schell is what a casting director would order for Nick. He appears every bit the all-arounder, who maintains his light heavyweight fighting trim but has the brains to be an academic. He looks and sounds the confident future leader. Finally, Megan Trout is wonderfully wide-eyed as Honey, with her bemusement often punctuated shrieking laughs. As a character who’s out of her depth, Trout portrays Honey’s naive sweetness with her own form of escapism.

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Josh Schell, Megan Trout, Beth Wilmurt. Photo by Jessica Palipoli.

 

The staging of the play is striking yet problematic. The raised stage platform is open on three sides. It represents a living room but is totally bare, perhaps symbolizing the residents’ barren lives. When not standing, actors often sit on the parquet floor around the perimeter of the stage with legs hanging over the side. The huge single step up and down that the actors make to enter and exit the stage makes for wildly ungainly movement that draws attention but doesn’t seem to serve a purpose. Stairs split the back wall, and huge, open, well-stocked liquor shelves of the type in a public bar are on either side. The importance of liquor in George and Martha’s lives is quite evident.

The dominant sound element is a recording of a popular instrumental jazz piece from the period, “Take Five.”  Musical phrases from the song are repeatedly looped, reflecting the rut that George and Martha’s lives have become.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” by Edward Albee is produced by Shotgun Players and plays at Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley, through January 17, 2017.

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