Role Playing: Brian Parry says he summoned courage before wit as George in ‘Virginia Woolf’
Interview: Veteran Redtwist Theatre ensemble member says tackling Edward Albee’s high-tension play in a very small space has been a perilous thrill. Extended through Oct. 31.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
In the thimble-size playing space of Redtwist Theatre, Brian Parry is reminded every night of the plain truth in playwright Edward Albee’s admonition to any actor who takes on the role of George, the battle-worn husband and semi-satisfied college professor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” – that it will be the workout of a lifetime.
“Albee was referring to the sheer quantity and intricacy of language,” says Parry, whose performance is a peak experience in Chicago’s autumn theater season. “And honestly, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. It wasn’t until the first preview that I felt I really had it.”
George’s role is huge. Not only does it abound in “words, words, words,” as Hamlet might have put it, but every one of those words also bears a weight and import worthy of Shakespeare.
“Dealing with a play that is held up, and rightly so, as one of the modern American masterpieces is scary,” says Parry, a veteran of many leading parts performed on Redtwist’s intimate stage. “If you’ve going to have the audacity to produce it, you’d better have something interesting to say within it. That was the scary part: Did we have that?”
In Albee’s play, George, a professor of history at a small New England college, is married to Martha, whose father is president of the school. It’s a prickly marriage, to put it mildly. Martha likes to remind George that he’s not head of the history department, that he’s pretty much a mediocrity, not to say a contented failure. For his part, George gets along by deflecting Martha’s barbs and, not infrequently, striking back with disarming, rapier wit and brilliance.
All this we see played out as the couple comes home from a welcoming party for new faculty and Martha (played by Jacqueline Grandt) hits George with an announcement that, late as the hour may be, they’re going to have post-party guests: a young professor and his wife freshly arrived on campus. As this little soirée spins into an early matinee, a steady stream of booze unearths some closely held secrets in both couples and George forces Martha to accept a hard, purifying truth about their marriage.
“You start with what’s there and work backwards,” says Parry, explaining how he and Grandt and director Jason Gerace tried to make sense of a marriage that seems deeply contentious and yet also exhibits its own peculiar equilibrium.
“We all agreed on one thing: George and Martha love the heck out of each other.”
And while George might appear to be the object of Martha’s casual disdain – a man on the defensive, almost abjectly deferential – Parry points out that in fact George is very much in control and simply picks the spots where he will resist or indeed draw the line.
“George is a very smart man with high principles and he doesn’t brook hypocrisy,” Parry says. “He’s not ambitious. He never wanted to succeed Martha’s daddy as president of the college, but he has a sense of accomplishment and he’s comfortable with himself up to a point. He also does what he can to make Martha happy.
“He accommodates Martha as far as he can. When they walk in after the party and she starts to talk about some Bette Davis movie, he goes along with it thinking she’ll run out of steam on that. Then she drops the news about the guests who are about to arrive, and he deals with that. That’s his modus operandi. He may not be crazy about an idea, but he won’t resist when he’s got nothing to gain by putting his foot down.”
Enter the kids, the newbies on campus, the biology teacher Nick (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.), handsome and trim (qualities not lost on Martha), and his demure wife Honey (Elizabeth Argus). It’s going to be a long night for George.
“He’s willing to be a decent host, but these people are not stimulating at all,” says Parry. “And prolonged exposure to them becomes more and more intolerable. George is appalled by Honey’s naïveté and her eagerness to please. She seems so desperate to be liked. Where’s all that need coming from, and why isn’t it being satisfied by her hubby? And he can’t bear Nick’s hypocrisy – this man whose marriage hangs on a false pregnancy and the money her father the preacher collected by fleecing the faithful.”
But the guests, whom George mercilessly skewers with their own revealed history, are not George’s ultimate opponent or concern in these wee-hour wars. That role is reserved for Martha, who breaks a sacred rule – not to be spilled here – of their private excursions into vitriol and thereby forces George’s hand.
“At that point,” says Parry, “George has come to realize there has to be a major change, a cleansing. Albee calls this last part of the play ‘The Exorcism,’ and it is nothing less than a struggle for Martha’s soul. George tells her, in effect, that from now on we’re going to deal with each other as we are, that we’re no longer going to drag this baggage around like Marley’s ghost.”
These are scenes of withering intensity, despite a generous portion of wry humor, and playing them to an audience that’s essentially sitting in George and Martha’s living room is no small challenge, Parry admits.
“The trick is not allowing myself to be distracted by an audience whose reaction is immediate and audible,” he says, “but at the same time to be aware that this person sitting two feet away has his legs sticking out. The situation also requires awareness and cooperation by the audience, and that’s what we’ve seen. For actors to work in such close quarters is thrilling.”
And not a little harrowing. “Jacqueline and I have worked together for close to 10 years,” says Parry, “and still after every performance of this play we have to hug each other to make sure we’re OK. On that small stage, we’ve had to let it fly and to trust each other through moments of great tension and conflict. Afterward we have to remind ourselves that it was just those two characters.”
Review of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at Redtwist Theatre: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
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