The opening lines of Edward Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ have become more famous than the film it references. Martha, loud and bawdy after coming home from a cocktail party, asks, then taunts, her husband George over the origin of a line from “some Goddamn Bette Davis movie: ‘What a dump!'”
She should have followed this reference from ‘Beyond the Forest’ with another famous line from a more famous and better Davis film: “Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
That line should have been delivered as an aside to the audience at Seattle Repertory Theatre, since the taunting escalates into one of the most wicked and brutal take-no-prisoners portraits of marital warfare ever written. The show, now running through May 18, lays bare the cost of the secrets that people build to protect themselves, only to become trapped by them.
In all truth, I was expected an intense, emotionally battering experience, but, surprisingly, while the emotions were raw and intense, I never wanted to hide or crawl away. In fact, Albee’s dialogue is sharp and funny enough to keep the tension from overwhelming the audience, but still taking them along for the ride. My expectations were based upon the classic Liz Taylor/Richard Burton movie, which I’d seen (for a second time) just a month or so ago. In it, director Mike Nichols steps back and allows the Burtons to unleash their fury on each other, right from the start. While watching it, I did want to get up and crawl whimpering behind the Barcalounger. But not with this production, the first time I’ve seen it live. (Besides seeing the movie twice, I’d also studied it in school–twice: once in high school and once in college.)
In the program notes, Albee is quoted as saying that he structures his plays like Bach preludes and fugues. Having seen several other Albee plays (Seascape, Three Tall Women and The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?) and also being familiar with Bach, I immediately got the concept and could observe the interplay in action (although at times, it more closely resembled Whack-a-Mole).
Timing is everything, and to make this sophisticated nuclear explosion work, you need a strong, tight but expert ensemble. In this regard, The Rep delivers. In fact, the cast is just the first piece. All the other pieces–direction, costumes, lighting, sound and set design–are just as strong. This could well be the best production of the season for Rep. Even Matthew Smucker’s set received applause when the lights went up–but then, Handsome Hunk is an interior designer who knows great design when he sees it. Heidi Zamora’s costumes captured the early 60’s leisure wear/cocktail feel in the characters. Most memorable, of course, was Martha’s, who had the only costume change in the show. Her smart cocktail dress was changed for a leopard-print top and black capri pants, from host to prowling predator.
Associate Artistic Director Braden Abraham faced a daunting task in this production, but he managed to direct it with skill. The play actually is funny, razor sharp and fast. Here, he found the rhythms in the parrying and dueling, the wit and the blood.
And, of course, the small cast was up to it. R. Hamilton Wright and Pamela Reed are seasoned actors and, as George and Martha (Albee deliberately named these two characters after the First President and the first First Lady) they swung from saracasm to rage to, yes, tenderness, and make it all believable. The play actually belongs to Martha and Reed has the strength to stay in command of the plot. Amy Hill and Aaron Blakely, as Honey and Nick, hold their own, in roles that could easily get buried . Hill in particular has it tough. She actually has the smallest role in the play, and does more listening and reacting, but she makes it count. Her timing and reactions are spot-on, and her drunken delivery of “hump the hostess!” is priceless. Blakely’s Nick hold his own, but is convincingly weak enough to succumb to Martha. They play Tokyo to George and Martha’s Godzilla.
Yet, through all of this destruction, Nick and Honey leave together, and George and Martha survive. Their most precious secret has been destroyed, and Martha’s shattering vulnerability has been dragged out, turned over and exposed to the light. But they’re survivors, because they’ve learned how to lick each others’ wounds. When ‘Woolf’ exploded on stage in 1962, no one had ever seen anything like it before. It’s a vicious satire of the American family and it says that if you really want to stay together, you’d better be willing to pay the price, because marriage isn’t Lucy and Ricky or even The Honeymooners. It’s a game, as seemingly as innocent as a sophisticated pun, but games can build into secrets and secrets can blow up.
You have to remember to help each other land safely.