Edward the Great: After nearly half a century, Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? still packs a 100-proof punch

Edward the Great: After nearly half a century, Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? still packs a 100-proof punch

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Through November 22 at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Boulevard (in the Big Brothers Big Sisters building).
Tickets are $25 ($20 for students, seniors and active-duty military personnel).
Call 314-799-8399 or visit www.muddywaterstheatre.com.

George and Martha are at it again. As the sparks fly and their lacerating living room boozefest drags on into the wee hours of the morning, one of their two wary party guests will remark, "Flagellation isn't my idea of a good time." Yet as Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? nears its 50th birthday, this duologue of disgust still delivers a whipping. Although we're no longer startled by the blunt language and explicit sexual peccadilloes that shocked audiences when the play debuted in 1962, the dehumanizing sight of two adults relentlessly attacking one another in a paradoxical act of compassionate contempt has lost none of its coruscating power and theatricality.

So perhaps the most surprising element of the current Muddy Waters production, which has been directed by Jerry McAdams, is how playful the carnage is. Many a director has interpreted the title of Albee's first act, "Fun and Games," to be cynical and sarcastic. This version treats that title literally. Because our venue is the intimate Kranzberg Arts Center, the actors are able to downplay the venom. At the outset George and Martha are akin to performers, and each is the other's best audience. So that when George tells his wife, "My God, you're a wicked woman," Alan Knoll's admiring delivery is as smooth as aged bourbon. And when Martha asks George, "You getting angry, baby?" Meme Wolff is able to soft-pedal the testiness.

By now, Virginia Woolf has nearly as many famous lines as Hamlet, yet what stands out here are the quiet moments that tend to get overshadowed in brassier, more strident stagings. Perhaps because we are so close to the action, we seem to hear more and thus can appreciate the scope of Albee's interests; the range of discussed topics is vast. No wonder that this script is so difficult to explain. What is Virginia Woolf about? Yes, there's the motif of characters regressing into a crepuscular world where reality and fantasy are intertwined. But by the time Martha hurls out some of her memorable invectives about truth and illusion, they almost sound didactic. This play cannot be limited by explanations. Just as we don't have to know what Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is "about" in order to be stirred by it, so too does Virginia Woolf resonate with different viewers in different ways.

The opening-night audience included lots of people who were seeing the play for the first time and who remained rapt for its three-hour twenty-minute running time. Which again speaks to the effectiveness of Albee's theatricality, for they were not seeing a superior production. The skimpy set looks like the victim of a theater season that ran out of money one play too soon. The bookshelves, which appear to be stocked with meaningless tomes from Goodwill, tell us nothing about the inhabitants of this home. Nor does the lighting design enhance George and Martha's secretive world.

The arc of Meme Wolff's Martha is generally right; the line readings make sense. But she's not excavating and she's not exposing. There's a further, deeper journey into Martha that still needs to be traveled. As Nick, the young biology professor who is the real butt of Albee's enmity, Joshua Thomas seems ill at ease. Last year Thomas conveyed a wide array of emotions as Reverend Shannon in Muddy Waters' Night of the Iguana, but here he seems somehow hamstrung. It's hard to appraise what Paris McCarthy is doing as Nick's simple wife Honey — except to note that there's not a single truthful moment in her entire performance.

Thank the theater gods for Alan Knoll, whose George is the evening's salvation. In a nuanced portrayal that elicits both empathy and understanding, Knoll reveals the shabby failure and even a disquieting serenity in this shell of a man. At the same time, he manages almost single-handedly to efficiently drive the action forward. Hard as it is to imagine an ensemble piece like Virginia Woolf as a one-man show, this version comes uncomfortably close.

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