Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee presented in June 2010 by GRRC

Theater Review

By Eric Rezsnyak on June 22, 2010

A well-stocked bar takes center stage in director Michael Arve's production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" That's appropriate for several reasons. Primarily, it's the center of the action, as each of the four characters takes turns at the bottles, steeling their reserves or impairing their target's defenses. And secondly, it's symbolic of all the domestic poisons that serve as the heartbeat of this brutal, fascinating play, currently receiving a fantastic staging at MuCCC.

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is Edward Albee's award-winning 1962 play, which was later adapted into a memorable film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Back in the 60's the play shocked audiences with its coarse language and vulgar suggestions. Now, in an age when even cartoons regularly employ more graphic action and perverted slurs, a barbed "Screw you!" seems almost quaint. But there is still lots of dramatic meat on these bones, and the four actors in the cast tear at it with incredible talent and absolutely no fear.

The play is set in the house of George and Martha, a middle-aged couple returning home from a late-night party at the nearby college. George is a low-level history professor at the school, Martha is the college president's daughter, and both of them are Olympic-level grudge holders. While the couple playfully - although pointedly -spars over the title of an old movie, Martha tucks discarded clothes under sofa cushions and does a half-assed attempt to cover up the physical detritus of a monotonous life (metaphor alert!) before dropping a bomb on George: they're about to have company.

Shortly thereafter they're joined by Nick and Honey, a chipper, straight-laced young couple that has recently relocated to the area so go-getter Nick can take a job in the college's biology department. Maybe it's the lack of warning. Maybe it's the late-night social visit. Maybe it's the drinking. Maybe it's the years of emasculation. Or maybe it's Martha's threat that she'll bring up their son in public. But for whatever reason (really, all of the above), the presence of promising hotshot Nick sends George over the edge. The brilliant, vindictive man sets about setting mental traps for each of his prey, eviscerating them verbally and emotionally, exposing horrible truths and even crueler lies.

A play like "Virginia Woolf" can easily descend into three hours of people screaming at each other. Thankfully, director Arve has cast a quartet of exceptional actors and worked with them to find the true emotions at the source of their rancor. As he writes in his director's notes, "the play is truly a great love story - albeit a tragic one." That really comes through in this production, even amid the emotional carnage.

As Martha, veteran local actress Judith Molner can spit out insults with the best of them - and man, are some of her lines brutal - but it's her icy, reserved delivery that really cuts to the quick. She's not just spraying verbal bullets indiscriminately; she's a sniper, tailoring each attack for the perfect kill shot to the ego. As exciting as Molner is when she's on the attack, the vulnerability she exhibits is perhaps even more gripping. There's a moment where Martha pauses and sits in silence, realizing the horrible mistakes she's made, and you can read the emotions as they silently add up across her face. It's a remarkable performance that speaks to years of training.

Jeff Moon's George is every bit a match for Molner's Martha. Moon has a velvety smooth voice that makes even the most brutal verbal punch feel as though it's merely a casual glance - it takes a good second for most of his insults to really register with both the characters and the audience. He's fascinating to watch as he builds from broken, defeated eunuch to obsessed, unhinged verbal gladiator, and Moon's near-manic glee at the moment of epiphany for his coup de grace is both delicious and sickening. It's a fabulously nuanced performance that gives chills. (I should note that during the preview Moon stumbled a bit with some of the dialogue, but he held his character throughout.)

Nick and Honey can be easy to dismiss as secondary characters - they're certainly not as flashy as George and Martha - but they're integral to the action of the show, and their story is just as desperate in different ways. As Nick, Ted Wenskus is impressive in his theatrical debut. He lulls the audience into a false sense of security with his initial milquetoast performance, but as the party drags on and Nick's facades are blown away one by one, a much more disturbing picture emerges, and Wenskus does a good job keeping the character grounded throughout the reveals. In his first outing he more than holds his own against three theater veterans.

Meredith Powell is a real surprise as Honey, Nick's brittle, prim wife. Powell starts off the show portraying Honey as something of a goofball, but things become startlingly serious after the revelations start flying. She throws her entire body into her wailing pleas to George to stop his assaults on the couple, and her fear and grief are almost palpable. She also does most of her heavy lifting while playing extremely intoxicated, and while it's over the top, her acting choices totally connect with the audience. A playwright, director, and actress, Powell is definitely one to watch out for. Unfortunately it was announced prior to the show's start that Powell will soon be leaving Rochester to pursue other opportunities, and that is a great loss for our local theater community.

Review reprinted courtesy of City Newspaper

Photo courtesy of Gerry Szymanski