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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Drama. Written by Edward Albee. Directed by Mark Jackson. Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley, CA, 94703

George and Martha, the middle-aged couple whose booze-filled late night encounter with a young couple fuels this American masterpiece, love to play games. Their game is a mostly vicious exercising of their deepest, ugliest secret – the exorcism of the nonexistant child of their creation.  Mark Jackson skillfully directs Albee’s tale of bitter disillusionment using the couple’s pent up rage as subtext for their attacks on each other and anyone in their orbits.

George, an assistant professor of history, is presented as a submissive, career failure. Martha, his wife and the college President’s daughter, is a disappointed social climber whose modus operandi is wicked, verbal attack. David Sinaiko inhabits the bespectacled George as an effete intellectual bore. Martha, portrayed by Beth Wilmurt, is totally uninhibited and regretful of her lost aspirations. They’re both excellent and equal combatants in the play’s explorations of expectations and its effect on the couple’s psyche’s.

Josh Schell as Nick, Beth Wilmurt as Martha, David Sinaiko as George. photo by Jessica Palopoli.

Josh Schell as Nick, Beth Wilmurt as Martha, David Sinaiko as George. photo by Jessica Palopoli.

Act One is titled “Fun and Games”, and is a harsh portend of fireworks to come. When Martha invites the hunky new Math professor Nick and his child-like wife Honey over for a drink (or a hundred), George bristles. Martha comes out swinging, her laser tongue emasculating her husband for not being a Nick. George responds in kind, humiliating Martha for being an aging, overweight floozy. Albee’s verbal sparring, so harshly and brutally written, doesn’t stop when the guests Nick (Josh Schell) and Honey (Megan Trout) arrive. They’re inadvertently sucked in the carnage and illusion of the long evening’s exchanges.

While Nick slowly begins to understand the ugly dynamic of his hosts, his brandy slurping wife Honey is blissfully unaware. Martha pits George and against Nick, first by debasing George’s career, his failed novel, his lack of ambition and finally his manhood. When a drunken Martha slips up and mentions the imminent arrival of their beautiful son for his 21st birthday, George explodes. Seems the boy is the manifestation their failed relationship and is their secret only. Martha’s disclosure pushes the couple to “total war baby”.

Megan Trout as Honey. photo by Jessica Palopoli.

Megan Trout as Honey. photo by Jessica Palopoli.

Act II, “Walpurgisnacht”, occurs later in the evening and bottles of booze later. George and Nick battle, Honey barfs and falls asleep in the bathroom, Martha seduces and beds Nick and the fists fly. A game of “Get the Guests” ensues, where Martha and George briefly tag team, destroying Nick and Honey with another disclosed secret about Honey’s hysterical pregnancy.

Act III, “The Exorcism” brings the evening to its conclusion. Martha turns on Nick, tired of the jealousy game. Honey, played wonderfully by Trout, is horrified but loaded. Nick, played with both strength and moral weakness by Josh Schell, is licking his wounds.  In one of Albee’s finest speeches, Martha tells the couple how she feels about George: “George, who is out somewhere there in the dark, who is good to me – whom I revile, who can keep learning the games we play as quickly as I can change them. Who can make me happy and I do not wish to be happy. And yes, I do wish to be happy. George and Martha: Sad, sad, sad. Whom I will not forgive for having come to rest; for having seen me and having said: “Yes, this will do”. Who has made the hideous, the hurting, the insulting mistake of loving… me, and must be punished for it. George and Martha… Sad, sad, sad.”  It’s a moment of absolute clarity among the illusions of their relationship.

Beth Wilmurt as Martha, David Sinaiko as George. Megan Trout as Honey, Josh Schell as Nick. photo by Jessica Palopoli.

Beth Wilmurt as Martha, David Sinaiko as George. Megan Trout as Honey, Josh Schell as Nick. photo by Jessica Palopoli.

When George fully realizes the depths of his cuckoldry, he proposes one last game – “Bringing Up Baby”, where he unmercifully kills their son. George has the power now, Martha is left crushed and defeated. Honey and Nick reflect our combined horror at the realization of their depravity. Nick and Honey depart, leaving George and Martha alone with their new reality. No more illusions, perhaps no more wars.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is tough going. When I saw the phenomenally acted 1962 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, I remember being horribly depressed by these two sad people. It became a cautionary tale of staying in bad relationships, perpetually wounded and angry. Labelled a black comedy, I found little comic relief. But today’s audience laughed at some of the spitfire deprecations and insults.  Mine was an uneasy chuckle at the wit of Albee’s barbs, not the underlying implications.

Shotgun Players closes it strong 25th season with a bang. Nina Balls sleek wood veneer bar set, and Ashley Holvick’s costumes make the play seem more contemporary and upscale. Sound Designer Sara Witsch  and Matt Stines successfully incorporate Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” into the score. The 1959 hit for Dave Brubeck ushered in the hip jazz spirit of the early 1960’s.  The four actors are superb and the direction crisp. If you’re up for good old American Shakespearean drama, you can’t so better than Albee.

Performances run October 12th through November 20th.  www.shotgunplayers.org   510.841.6500