‘Virginia Woolf’ an RCRT Triumph
River City Repertory Theatre’s stunning production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” amply illustrates why this Edward Albee work is justly called one of the great modern plays.
It is an emotional marathon that encompasses dramatic fireworks, razor-sharp humor, affecting pathos and palpable intelligence. And it offers four actors a grand feast.
Susan Kirton, Patric McWilliams, Ellen Lindsay and Logan Sledge, under the direction of Robert R. Buseick, take the challenge and, quite frankly, knock it out of the ballpark.
The production opened Wednesday at East Bank Theatre and will be performed again Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“Virginia Woolf” is a tough play that takes an incisive look at two couples and, as it were, two marriages. Paramount is the relationship between George and Martha (McWilliams and Kirton), a middle-aged couple, whose marriage has become a continuous battle of one-upmanship as they struggle to hang on to a relationship that often slips into toxicity. Nick and Honey (Sledge and Lindsay) is a younger couple whose seemingly placid marriage rests on some shaky ground of its own.
Albee throws these four people together over a long evening in which they are cruelly exposed as they interact with each other as intentions, needs, failures, aspirations, lies, truths and, perhaps, optimism surface on the troubled waters.
George is a professor in the history department of a small college and married to the college president’s daughter. Nick has newly joined the faculty in the biology department. After a faculty party, Martha has invited Nick and Honey, unbeknownst to a disgruntled George, to come over for drinks. As the evening progresses and the alcohol flows, the gathering becomes a shambles as George and Martha cannot keep their marital sparring from taking over and dragging in the unsuspecting younger couple.
Under Buseick’s fluid direction, this blistering play is illuminated as it delves into the dynamics of relationships. Albee offers so much above and under the surface that it takes a first-rate director and cast to understand and corral the play and convey it to those sitting in the audience.
It is a play of verbiage – and often glorious verbiage – mixed with some physicality. Buseick keeps it smoothly running as dialogue sometimes overlaps or characters dramatically break out but all with a naturalness that stays within the flow of the pacing. The director also allows Albee’s trenchant humor to surface but never trump the inherent drama of the piece.
The director’s axiom that 90 percent of a show’s success is casting it right certainly is evident here.
McWilliams’ George is a seemingly tired, beaten down man who has given in to a dominating wife and a life of disappointments. Slowly and smartly, the actor has finely calibrated the character, and the theatergoer discovers that George truly is the strongest character. It’s a wonderfully satisfying and layered performance that owes as much to the physical acting (body language) as it does the verbal.
Kirton has become a first-rate actress. Although her Martha is a gin-swilling, taunting virago, there is a touching vulnerability the actress gives the character that can break the heart. It’s a fine balance, and Kirton pulls it off with aplomb. It’s a performance in which an actress can just let go, and Kirton does that and all to her credit.
Sledge is an actor who always simply becomes the role he is playing. He has such a naturalness that even though Nick is a somewhat superficial young man you cannot not watch him. Everything Sledge does is just right, whether that is Nick embarrassingly listening to an intense argument or erupting into a fit of temperament.
Lindsay brings a delicate fragility to the soft Honey who seems to be nervously stepping around in life. And that fragility pays dividends when the character can suddenly become snappish. Of all the characters, Lindsay’s Honey is the most mercurial, and the actress rides that wave with no trouble. Watching her character slowly become inebriated is one of the play’s small pleasures.
The greatest pleasure is watching this ensemble work together in a play that commands them to bring everything to the table. It’s ferocious and unforgiving and wrings out those seriously interpreting the roles. This unit is rock solid.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” challenges the audience, too, to understand, especially with George and Martha, what keeps this couple together and why have they gotten to a breaking point. It is the latter that underscores the humanity that Albee brings to this great work. Need can be a glorious and terrible thing.
All is played out on a bravura set fashioned by Jim Hayes that is a star in its own right. It depicts the living room and bar area of George and Martha’s domicile. Comfortably messy with books and magazines strewn about and crammed into wall-to-ceiling book cases. Frumpy furniture dots the various acting areas that include a staircase leading to a second floor and the entrance to a hallway leading to another part of the house. Depth perception is given through a centrally located front door that, when opened, extends the set. Hayes is a real find and addition to the professional repertory theater.
Courtney Gaston’s light design is some of her best work, using bright, harsh lights to highlight some of the dramatic fireworks and then muted, soft lights to underscore the poignant passages. Mike Martindale has provided the sound design that becomes singularly important in underscoring one scene as it helps build tension.“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” not only is playwright Albee’s masterwork, it is one of the true masterworks of American theater. What a theatrical pleasure director Buseick has made this incarnation of it.