Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

By Edward Albee; Directed by Steven Woolf (Repertory Theatre of St. Louis)

Edward Albee's deep black comedy Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the Rep's production of which opened last weekend, is one of the most important -- and best -- plays of the second half of the 20th century. Albee led up to its first production in 1962 with a quartet of gripping one-acters, including "Zoo Story," but his work after Virginia Woolf, though often intellectually interesting, never achieved the power, passion and pain of his 1962 masterpiece.

Virginia Woolf put an end to a charming, often compelling genre, the drawing-room comedy (as somebody really ought to let A.R. Gurney know) with its heavy, often mildly sickening mix of reality and illusion, booze and neurosis, staunch love and implacable hatred, Northeast Coast upper-class attitudes and Midwestern innocent egalitarianism. Its three acts take a while to lay out, even with the economy and witty pacing director Steve Woolf employs. When the final act concludes, three-and-a-half hours (including two short intermissions) after the lights first came up, the audience feels as exhausted by the play's long night's journey into day as the characters.

And perhaps as drunk, too -- on a metaphorical metaxa, the syrupy, mule's-kick Greek cognac that produces a hangover like the bubonic plague.

Virginia Woolf is a historical document, too. The ritualized hard drinking the play mimes doesn't happen anymore, but it happened a lot from 1945-1965 among educated people on such a widespread front that nobody who did it thought it was at all odd. Doctors, lawyers, professors, businessmen and their wives knocked back the hard stuff at cocktail parties, had more drinks while waiting for dinner, then got into the highballs afterward. Then it all stopped about 1970 and white wine and beer took over, neither of which is conducive to large-scale drunkenness except among the very young.

As everyone knows, the play concerns an after-party party that begins somewhere after 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning. George, an associate professor of history at a small New England college, and Martha, his wife and the college president's daughter, entertain two new members of the faculty family: Nick, a biologist, and his wife, Honey, the daughter of a successful roving evangelist. An evening with George and Martha (and yes, there's George and Martha Washington, but giving that any more than an acknowledgment of Albee's irony is wildly unrewarding) is a trial by obnoxiousness everyone at the college must probably undergo over and over again. That's the way closed communities are. But Honey and Nick, despite the harrowing George and Martha give them, leave the booze-up wiser, even morally healthier, than they entered, and their hosts are at least temporarily reconciled (too weak a word) to their lives together.

The most interesting thing Woolf has done, in collaboration with Ashley West, is to give Honey some backbone. Though she is naive and simple, she is not simple-minded and she has spirit. Chris Hietikko continues Steve Woolf's essay in three-dimensionality by making Nick a thoroughly recognizable and acceptable young fellow whose ambition is completely understandable; his affectations -- a metal cigarette case, for God's sake! -- are what an unsophisticated Ph.D. from Kansas might bring to New England. Anderson Matthews' George is a marvelously nuanced character whose changes in emotional direction really keep the play interesting.

Carolyn Swift's Martha, on the other hand, comes on singing one note at one grating pitch with the volume turned all the way up. Her bray, as George calls Martha's laugh, is exactly the same as that "haw-haw" Phyllis Diller used for so long. The problem with entering at full volume is there's nowhere to go except down, and Swift doesn't get quiet until we've put up with it for most of the three acts and it's too late to feel much pity for her anguish.

John Ezell's set is grandiose, vulgar and ridiculous. The big oak front door opens right into a high-ceilinged, wainscoted, lead-windowed baronial living room that sports a utilitarian work desk; to get to the kitchen you go up some stairs. Such silliness is distracting. Worse, the set's size diminishes the human inhabitants for reasons only to be grasped at.

But this production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is certainly worth seeing, even more so when Carolyn Swift cools down a bit. The Rep and artistic director Woolf have revived a far better play than Arthur Miller (for example) ever wrote, and the retrospective of 20th-century American theater this production initiates could hardly have begun more wisely.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continues through March 10.

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