‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ at Redtwist: Friendly fire at close range, brutal and brilliant
Review: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” by Edward Albee, at Redtwist Theatre extended through Oct. 31. ★★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Seeing a play at tiny Redtwist Theatre, where a full house of 30 or 40 viewers often encircles the unfolding drama, can be an experience of in-your-face intensity. But the company’s electric burn through Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” takes intensity to a harrowing new place.
It’s one thing to feel like a fly on the wall, and another to sense that you might actually be in the way – or, more to the point, in the line of fire. My spot in the meager apartment, the well-trod battle ground of Albee’s ever-warring George and Martha, was by the fireplace — within the swish radius of the “comfortable” late-late-night frock Martha slips into for entertaining the new young couple on campus.
But I get ahead of myself. As every theater buff surely knows – and this would be the perfect opportunity to fill in that lacuna should it apply – Martha (the marvelously gritty Jacqueline Grandt) is the middle-aged daughter of the president of a small New England college where her somewhat younger, yet solidly disappointing husband George (the elusively vulnerable, or perhaps vulnerably elusive, Brian Parry) teaches history. George and Martha are two bright people who have redefined marriage as an intellectual street fight. They are at each other’s throats constantly, sometimes viciously. Or so it appears; maybe it’s all just a bizarre game.
At curtain up, these happy pugilists have just returned from an autumn welcoming soirée for new faculty member when Martha informs George that a fresh (and handsome) face in the math – she’s sure he said math – department is coming over with his wife for a late drink. Poor kids. They have no idea the grinder they’re walking into – but arrive they do, and thus beginneth a sort of modern commedia dell’arte fraught with emotional pratfalls, funny stories (always at someone’s painful expense), whacks to the head that land on the heart and, as the punchline to the ultimate dark joke, one awful death.
As an examination of hopes and dreams beaten on the anvil of reality, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” stands among the greatest American plays. Just as certain, the role of George, this man who might have been king of a small realm but that he could not transcend his mediocrity, ranks with the most brilliant and the most formidable stage characters in English. Parry’s performance is a tour de force, a galvanic pendulum swing from humiliation and desperate self-preservation to bitter arrogance, abject resignation and loving severity.
Indeed, “Virginia Woolf” can easily turn into a one-man show with three shadows feeding him lines. That is not the case here. In this close-up, glaring view, Grandt’s Martha displays the textured psychology of human frailty. She is complicated, but also compelling. Beneath the rants and the seemingly merciless barbs that Grandt unleashes, one senses deep torment, anxiety, fear. When in the end the mask falls, and Martha with it, we see the bare truth for the first time, and the mutual reliance of equal partners. It is a profoundly affecting moment.
Grandt’s skill and the subtle hand of director Jason Gerace combine to shed rare light at the very outset, when George and Martha enter their modest abode and she proclaims: “What a dump!” She’s quoting Bette Davis from a film, and she’s annoyed that George can’t remind her which film. But she continues to wrestle with this conundrum for some time before settling onto the couch with the softly spoken thought: “She is discontent.” The line is not a throwaway. Gerace makes space for it. Martha might as well be looking into a mirror.
As for the kids, Nick (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.) the new guy in biology – not math! – and his wifey little mouse Honey (Elizabeth Argus) create two people as real as I’ve ever seen in these deceptively challenging parts. These innocents bring their own history, and once George learns it, he impales them both on it in a little game he calls “get the guests.” Argus is a convincing drunk, clinging to awareness even as she slides into oblivion. And through this booze-fueled night, Cefalu’s blind-sided, off-balance Nick does a manful job of trying to man up to the older, wiser, more powerful and unimaginably nastier George.
We don’t see the “well-worn stairs” leading up to George and Martha’s bedroom, but to judge from the furnishings in set designer Eric Broadwater’s down-at-the-heels living room, it’s probably not just a figure of speech. Even through the haze of liquor, this bleak place is a palpable, frightful portrait precisely drawn.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
- Preview of Redtwist Theatre’s complete 2015-16 season: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com