NEW YORK – George and Martha are back. Edward Albee’s iconic couple with no last names who do battle royal in his landmark play "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" are being feted with a 50th anniversary production by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater at Broadway’s Booth Theatre on West 45th Street through March 24.
Over the years, Mr. Albee’s play has lost little of its initial dramatic power or its harsh comedy with only its language tending to be less shocking than when it debuted a half a century ago. The play’s essential vehemence still rages and roars across the stage with hurricane ferocity, yet in the end, "Virginia Woolf" is also wise and understanding and ultimately compassionate.
Mr. Albee begins his play at two o’clock in the morning in the book-cluttered living room of George (Tracy Letts) and Martha (Amy Morton), to which they have returned from a party at which they have been drinking steadily. George, who is 46, and Martha, 52, have been married for 22 years.
As a professor of history at a small New England college at which Martha’s father is president, George has not exactly achieved academic distinction and Martha is not letting him forget it. She taunts, jeers and baits him, and the presence of her startled guests Nick (Madison Dirks), a young biology instructor; and Honey (Carrie Coon), his mousey bride, does not deter her. As the night proceeds with all four of them drinking steadily, Martha increases the tempo of her attacks on George. He warns and threatens her, while she just howls down his protests until he reaches a breaking point and then sets out to retaliate with diabolical fury.
Earlier, Martha had mentioned their 21-year-old son. George reminds Martha of some agreement he and she had made to not mention the boy. She scoffs at his objections. But in a staggering scene, while she talks on about the boy, George stands over her reading a death notice, shouting Martha down with the news that their son is dead. Only then does the truth begin to appear. George and Martha could never have a child and this is a reason for the long, awful bitterness in their marriage. "Virginia Woolf" ends with the unmasking of this illusion that George and Martha have lied to themselves about for years.
With any production of "Virginia Woolf," the most crucial element is the delicate balance of casting George and Martha; it determines whom the audience sides with during the play and how Albee’s dénouement plays out. Though I didn’t see the original Broadway production, the reviews indicate that Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill were evenly matched; Mike Nichols’s 1966 film version, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, also achieved a level battleground between the warring couple, as did the Albee-directed 1976 revival that featured Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara. A Kathleen Turner star-driven staging in 2005 became Martha’s play with an ancillary George played by Bill Irwin.
Here, under the careful direction of Pam MacKinnon, we have a talented quartet of Chicago- based actors playing the strafing duo and their late-night visitors.
Yet this new "Virginia Woolf" tends to lean in favor of George – played with brilliant nuance by Mr. Letts – who quietly dominates the evening’s proceedings. Mr. Letts’s name may sound familiar because besides being a fine actor, he is also the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "August: Osage County." From a slow-burn start, Mr. Letts builds his performance scene by scene, act by act, to an explosive finish in the play’s final moments.
Ms. Morton is hardly a slouch and gives as good as she gets in a solid performance as the brawling and badgering harridan Martha, though her interpretation of the character tends to become more yielding as the evening proceeds.
But no one escapes getting targeted in this night of marital combat. Halfway through the proceedings, George introduces a nasty party game called "Get The Guests," in which he excoriates their young visitors, pinning Nick down as a slick adventurer and Honey as a fraud who tricked Nick into marriage.
When "Virginia Woolf" opened on Broadway on Oct. 13, 1962, Mr. Albee was only known for a handful of one-act plays, one of which, "The Zoo Story," indicated he was an artist with a rare insight into suffering and human nature. He was tagged by the theater cognoscenti of the time as a young playwright to keep an eye on. With the arrival of the stunning "Virginia Woolf," his previous one-act successes proved to be only preliminary works; he emerged as a mature dramatist of first ranking. At 34, Mr. Albee found himself being hailed as the first American dramatist of stature to appear since Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. One critic even suggested that Mr. Albee, in this his first long play, proved he knew more about playwriting than Eugene O’Neill did at the beginning of his career.
When Mr. Albee wrote "Virginia Woolf," there had been very few American plays to match the brutally candid presentation of love and hatred in matrimony, which is what his play is all about. The idea that men and women who love deeply may very well hate and hurt one another at the same time was comparatively new in our theater. It was first expressed by the Swedish dramatist August Strindberg in his drama called "Dance of Death," written in 1901. Mr. Strindberg wrote of a husband and wife very much like George and Martha, waging a terrible marital war driven by an inner force that he called "love- hate."
Eugene O’Neill was the first American to recognize Strindberg’s power and understanding, and he made "love-hate" the central fact of many of his best plays, including "Long Day’s Journey Into Night," which he wrote in an attempt to understand why his own family loved so deeply but also hated and hurt one another. Arthur Miller was also concerned with the love-hatred of fathers and sons in "All My Sons" and again in "Death of a Salesman." Tennessee Williams explored the same puzzling topic in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
Now after five decades, Mr. Albee’s masterwork of love-hate and retribution is being introduced to a new generation of theatergoers. It still proves to be furiously and endlessly alive and one of the most stunning, mesmerizing dramas of our time. For its three acts and three-hour duration, one could have heard a pin drop in the Booth Theatre.
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.