"George and Martha. Sad, sad, sad." For lovers of the Woolf, those six little words will induce Pavlovian joy. Such a cruel play. Such total destruction. Such delight.
Even though Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf opened just last week at Palm Beach Dramaworks, overheard weeks ago at another play's opening night was: "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is my favorite play. I can't wait." The mere reference brings the theater crowd a'scampering.
As a caveat to discussing Dramaworks' production, though, we should first acknowledge that you and I and everyone we know were reared on the 1966 film version, more of an American institution, really, than just a film.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Palm Beach Dramaworks, 322 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach
Presented through June 11. Call 561-514-4042.
As you head to the theater, you can't help but hear in your head the voices of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton not to mention George Segal and Sandy Dennis and salivate over movie memories of a soused Liz waving a chicken leg around while doing her Bette Davis impression, chanting, "What a dump!"
It was October 13, 1962, though, at the Billy Rose Theatre in New York City that contact was initiated between an unsuspecting world and, in Woolf's scripted stage notes, "The living room of a house on the campus of a small New England college."
Then comes the first cue: "Set in darkness. Crash against front door. Martha's laughter heard. Front door opens, lights are switched on. Martha enters, followed by George."
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Because, here they come.
George (Gordon McConnell) and Martha (Lisa Morgan), sad, sad, sad. The jaded middle-aged history professor and his jaded wife have arrived home at 2 a.m. from the college's faculty party, along with an entire post-war set of hatreds, conspiracies, and abuses of themselves and each other. Did I mention that inordinate amounts of booze are involved?
They're tipsy. George wants to sleep off the faculty party, but Martha's primed for something more wicked: to entertain, as only Martha can, the college's new kids, young hunk biology professor Nick (Clive Cholerton) and his sweetly delicate wife, Honey (Margery Lowe).
That's the setup, and to describe the Olympic Games of Dysfunction that happen next in the resulting three-and-a-half-hour marathon would be as patronizing as to give you a scene-by-scene description of Hamlet (oh, and then Hamlet kills Polonius, and then he gives this crazy soliloquy that you've just got to hear...).
Despite the recent Broadway revival that brought Kathleen Turner to the stage in what was trumpeted as a spectacular turn, it's somewhat curious that there aren't more productions of the play. But watching Morgan and McConnell's work suggested the reason for the scarcity. If you can't create a production that outdoes, or at least equals, the performances in the film, then why bother?
The ultimate question in post-play polling of how you feel about what you saw at Dramaworks is: Does your anticipation warrant satisfaction? Should they have bothered?
Absolutely. Morgan and McConnell make the play their own baby, so to speak, in the ebb and flow of battles that, at crucial moments, make your breathing stop and carry you along toward the complete meltdown at the end. There's a reason Morgan won this year's Carbonell Best Actress Award for Frozen at GableStage and that last week New Times named McConnell Best Actor of 2006 for his Mosaic Theatre performance in Match.
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As the young kids, although Cholerton is a little stiff at first (yes, of course, so is his character), and Lowe's initial channeling of Sandy Dennis feels wrong, the pair grow on you. Through William Hayes' tight direction, they brightly connect with the stars with whom they have the fortune to share the stage for the next month.
There's something I didn't realize before about Woolf until seeing Dramaworks' production. It's the story of Aeneas and Dido. Aeneas arrives in Dido's kingdom of Carthage (in the play, the college town is called New Carthage). The gods have them fall in love and force Aeneas to abandon Dido. She destroys herself, and their fated passion and violence plant the seed for the future Punic Wars.
It's the epic stuff of mythical tales told and retold, and Woolf is its own American epic, with its tales all played out in the small-town parlor, to be repeated over and over, just as Martha, near the end, laments, "We both cry all the time, and then, what do we do, we cry, and we take our tears and we put 'em in the ice box, in the goddamn ice trays until they're all frozen, and then we put them in our drinks."
After Morgan and McConnell get done recycling their tears, this is what the audience has to say as it empties into the street: "They look exhausted." It's not only a brilliant and worthy comment but a genuine compliment to the actors' work (all four of them) and the shared experience that has just torn all of us apart.