I'm old enough to remember the excitement Edward Albee's first full-length play, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, created when it opened on Broadway in 1962. I was a senior at Princeton and first saw the play when the matinee cast played a Friday evening performance at Princeton's McCarter Theatre. The Canadian actress Kate Reid played a chubby, tough Martha who obviously wore the pants in the family. Henderson Forsythe played George as something of a milksop who finally gets his revenge. A year later a new matinee cast returned to McCarter with Elaine Stritch playing a larger than life Martha who dominated the proceedings. In both performances of the play as originally directed by Alan Schneider, there was a stylized quality to the characterizations. Martha verged on camp (Elaine Stritch, for heaven's sake!!), George was a stereotypical mild-mannered academic, Nick was a handsome blonde who didn't act much like an intellectual and Honey was a giggling idiot. The critics were right to see a strain of misogyny in the original production as well as the possibility that camp, over-the-top Martha wasn't a woman at all. I never saw the evening cast with Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill, who may have given somewhat different performances. I suffered through the over-wrought Mike Nichols film that drained the very funny play of most of its humor.
WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF is another American combination of realism, satire, theatrical metaphor and absurdism. The action of the play hinges on the device of an imaginary child sterile George and Martha have created for twenty-one years as a way of holding their marriage together and whom George "kills" at the climax of the play. George's murder of "sonny boy" is both the final game in an evening of increasingly cruel games and potentially a healing act, the final stripping away of damaging illusions. There are two major patterns of imagery in the play. One is fertility/sterility: George and Martha's sterility, Honey's false pregnancy (or abortion), Nick's impotence with Martha, the toy gun George brandishes in the first act, the phallic flowers he throws at Martha and Nick in the last act. The other is truth/illusion, summed up in Honey's offstage peeling of the label off the brandy bottle as the truth about her loveless marriage is exposed. Albee wants us to read the play as realism and as theatrical poetry at the same time as he exposes the hollowness at the core of the American upper middle class (as if academics are typical of the upper middle class -- as my esteemed, late colleague Reynolds Price used to say, academics are the people who as children were inside reading while the other children were outside learning to play together.). And, as Albee often does, we have a horrible domestic crime that echoes classical tragedy in the ritual killing of George and Martha's son. All this is to say that any production of the play has to perform a difficult stylistic balancing act.
Pam MacKinnon's production, an import from the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago and the fourth to appear on Broadway, emphasizes the realistic aspects of the play. From the outset, we believe that Tracy Letts' George and Amy Morton's Martha are a married couple who, like most couples who have been together over twenty years, have their own codes. They may not be the happiest couple in the world but they like being around each other. George and Martha are presented as three-dimensional characters, not a series of performances. Their ages seem wrong -- Amy Morton's Martha, who is supposed to be six years older than George, looks a good ten years younger, but George does talk abut looking older and grayer than his wife. Morton's Martha never gets overly blowzy. Her Martha reflects the plight of many women of her time. She's brilliant, but there's no place for her to use that brilliance. Her ambitions have to be expressed through her husband's career, but her husband isn't ambitious enough. George, after all is still an Associate Professor, that purgatorial rank for academics who haven't yet fulfilled their initial promise. She, the college president's daughter, has to live with the fact that her husband has let her down and live with the fact that she cannot fulfill her domestic role as mother. Yet Martha does love George though, self-hating, she punishes him for his academic failures and her personal failures. What we see on stage in this production is a complicated marriage, but there's love there.
Madison Dirks' Nick and Carrie Coon's Honey also avoid caricature. Dirks looks ten years older than Nick's twenty-eight, but he presents Nick as a complex character, essentially a good guy out of his depth and as unhappy in his own way as George and Martha. I've seen WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF eight or nine times and I've never seen Nick presented as such a complex character. Carrie Coon plays Honey as a quiet alcoholic rather than the idiot and butt of jokes of previous productions I have seen. This is a woman who is drinking because she knows her marriage is a failure. Coon should get a Tony for playing the most convincing drunk I have ever seen on stage.
There were two surprises to this approach to the play. First, when Martha is played as a human being and not "larger than life," George becomes the focal character. In Tracy Letts' performance, George may be a failure as an academic, but he's going to be in control at home at any cost. Martha may try to humiliate him, but he gives as good as he gets. In some productions, the long scene between George and Nick at the beginning of the second seems too long. We wonder when Martha will return to entertain us. Here the scene becomes one of the strongest, most fascinating in the play. Indeed, the relationship between Letts' George and Dirks' Nick is as fascinating and complex as that between George and Martha.
The only problem with this approach to the play is that the climax, when George announces the death of his and Martha's "son," seems less theatrically credible, more of a gimmick. However, Morton's grief is deeply moving, as are the final moments of George and Martha together, a loving couple who will go on without one of the illusions that have held them together. "Sonny Jim" was both a bond and a weapon they used against each other (as real children often are).
If this production spotlights a basic flaw in Albee's play (is there a flawless play?) it also humanizes the work. WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF is one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century American drama. When I first saw it as a twenty-one year old, I thought I had seen versions of these people in my young life. It rang true to me. It still does. It is brutally funny and brutally honest.
I went to a Wednesday matinee and was shocked, given the rave reviews, to see how sparsely attended it was. Of course Al Pacino is playing next door and Patti LuPone and Debra Winger are on the marquee two theaters down. If one goes to Broadway shows to see stars, there are no stars in this production and no star turns. There's only fine, fine acting and direction of a great play. Perhaps that's not enough to make money on Broadway.
Even if you have seen WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF before, you should see this production before it closes.
WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF by Edward Albee. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. Booth Theater. October 24, 2012.