Not a single audience member could hide from the games of George and Martha at Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? now open at the Booth Theatre. Direct from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, this unique take on a well known Albee classic – directed by Tony-nominated Pam MacKinnon – had members of the audience on the edge of their seat as they quickly became participants of wild party games that expose the innermost truths within us.
…Virginia Woolf takes us into the “dump” of a home of the dynamic duo, George (Tracy Letts) and Martha (Amy Morton). George, an unfulfilled history professor at the local college, and Martha, the witty daughter of the president of the college, invite over a new professor and his wife for some after-party cocktails to welcome and get acquainted with the newcomers. Nick (Madison Dirks) and Honey (Carrie Coon), however, discover that their host and hostess are ready to serve more than Brandy and Bourbon. Through witty storytelling, clever romp, and playful banter, we learn the history of George and Martha including what keeps this couple going strong. Unlike most idealistic couples, their mind games through role playing and insulting each other are what fuels their passion and desire. Initially, we are led to believe that Nick and Honey are a sharp contrast of their hosts: young, idealistic, vital, new generation brilliance; however, throughout their night, we learn about the dark past of the young couple and find that these four human beings have much more in common than they originally thought. As the night progresses, these four become stripped of their dignity and forced to enter a world of honesty and truthfulness, leading us to believe that all games must come to an end despite the consequences.
The vibrant storytelling provided by Albee’s text could have easily fallen flat in unworthy hands; however, this was not the case. Tony-nominated Amy Morton (August: Osage County) bares the soul of Martha before she even appears onstage with a contagious laugh that bursts through the front door. I would be remiss to say that Morton creates a “likable” Martha, but that she makes this woman relatable. Martha becomes a woman that you could easily run into at a family gathering and become the life of the party with a story for every soul. The ease, poise, and timing of her moves has you hanging on every word spoken; this was key to the successful portrayal of every line of subtext that existed below the façade of the couple’s antics.
Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning Tracy Letts (playwright of August: Osage County) creates a George who matches Martha’s wit with a rough hilarity. Most notable is Letts’ ability to create an atmosphere where comfort and warmth could quickly transform into cold, bone-chilling fear in the blink of an eye. Letts’ George is eloquent and sophisticated with a shot of vulgarity that bursts out, demanding your complete attention. George not only gave you a history lesson, he made you a prisoner that kept you thirsty for more – a Stockholm-esque characteristic. Letts makes bold choices that take the character of George and his onlookers deeper into the psyche of humankind, forcing you to question when enough is enough.
As a couple, Morton and Letts have a fiery chemistry that can only be described as flawless. Rapid-fire insults, unscripted inside jokes in their physicality, and brutal honesty is what makes this couple not only believable, but loveable. You can’t help but laugh at the brutality of their “Georgie-boy” and “Yes, love” lines. While we understand that these two teeter on the brink of insanity, their love for each other is genuine.
Broadway newcomers Madison Dirks (television’s Chicago Fire) and Carrie Coon (television’s The Playboy Club) create exactly what the party needs, a young George and young Martha; complete with their own skeletons in the closet. Dirks creates a Nick that tries relentlessly to maintain face and integrity despite his youth, attempting to hide naivety. Unfortunately for Nick, his wife Honey has enough naivety to fill the entire college. Coon brings a not-so “mousy” interpretation of the character Honey, allowing her wild side to come up a bit sooner than maybe anticipated. Unlike George and Martha, Nick and Honey seem to already be in a bit a rocky situation in regards to moving on through life. Dirks and Coon exemplify this in a way that fits well with not only their portrayal, but in their chemistry with Letts and Morton.
Pam MacKinnon’s (Clybourne Park) overall direction is a crucial part to this unique production. The audience is taken on a 3-hour roller coaster ride that had you thinking ever second of whether you were going to a fall freely, slow down, accelerate and so on. The seamless transitions and game hopping is a must to keep the audience invested in these characters’ downward spiral. Something as simple as a hair pull, a lost temper, or an added glare made this production not just dynamic but distinctive; the stripping down of characters to their bare minds is essential.
To house this insanity is a cleverly pieced-together set as well as a simply effective light design. Award-winning Todd Rosenthal (The Motherfucker with the Hat) proves that sets today can be still be thoughtful and eloquent while being functional. This realistic set clearly proves that both Martha and George had a say in who was designing the room: some mismatched furniture and blankets, an expressionistic painting on one wall and a landscape painting on another, and Martha’s magazines along with George’s books and novels. The final element is a subtle yet effective light design by award winner Allan Lee Hughes (Clybourne Park). Like the set, the light design is very realistic but captivates each moment expressively without being distracting. Hughes creates subtle light changes that do not only match the action but intensifies and amplifies the characters’ anger, fears, and frustrations.
Steppenwolf’s production Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a remarkable piece of art that will leave you breathless from the beginning of each act to the end. Every element of this production is intelligent, witty, clever, and enigmatic, which make for amazing theatre.