Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Kathleen Turner, Bill Irwin
Directed by Anthony Page
April 13-May 4
Golden Gate Theatre, San Francisco
Best of Broadway Website
Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin. Photo by Carol Rosegg
If a couple that goes by the name of our first president and his lady invites you over, better stay home. Chances are you won’t have a very good time. George and Martha’s relationship is fueled by vitriol and booze. They like to play games in which just about everybody gets hurt and, if there is love underneath it all, it is so weighted down with years of frustration and disappointment it barely can struggle to the surface.
When Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” first saw the light of stage in the very early 60s, hardly anybody was getting divorced yet. People just stuck it out and fought to the finish. And this play was a knockout, catapulting its author to the heights, where he has more or less remained. The 2005 multi-award-winning revival is worth revisiting in light of the author’s later (2000) “The Goat or Who is Sylvia?” Same subject – failed relationships – wholly different execution. For my money, in a contest between the Woolf and the Goat, Goat wins.
Nevertheless, this show will pack ‘em in on star power alone. The touring company is helmed by the original Broadway and London headliners, Bill Irwin, who won the 2005 Tony for his portrayal of George, and film and stage star Kathleen Turner, whose Martha garnered the London Evening Standard and Critic’s Circle Award as well as an Olivier and Tony nomination. Irwin, long a San Francisco favorite (“Fool Moon”) and a founding member of Pickle Family Circus, well deserves his plaudits. His understated George, unleashing his zingers as he shuffles around his living room in a nondescript gray vest and pants, is a masterpiece of nuance. You actually feel sympathy for the guy as he verbally dissects his wife and their two hapless guests in a way that is no less cruel for all of its passive-aggressiveness.
Turner, on the other hand, is totally out there, chewing up the scenery like a drunken bat out of Hell. Her husky voice “brays” (Albee’s words) insults and epithets as she tears down her husband’s failure to advance at the small Eastern college where her daddy just happens to be president. She throws her full body at the young chemistry teacher (David Furr) as she blatantly seduces him right in front of her spouse. It is a bravura, over-the-top performance that wears the viewer out, if not the actress. In the end, when George wins the duel – at least for the moment – it is hard to believe that such an indomitable force of nature could crumble so fast. Moving, but hard to believe.
The guests, Nick (Furr) and his wife Honey (Kathleen Early) who spends much of the time in the bathroom, throwing up, are very well played. The seemingly innocent Nick has his own agenda for advancement at the university to which he has just been appointed. And if that includes playing Martha’s game of “Hump the Hostess” (who just happens to be the president’s daughter) that’s OK with him, even if his wife is passed out in the bathroom and her husband is in the next room, getting more ice for the drinks. Honey’s hick Midwestern accent and incredible naiveté are a bit annoying in the beginning but she wears well and, by the last act, she really comes into her own.
Albee’s writing is, as always, filled with dazzling wordplay and this is a laugh-filled play, for all its sadness. Anthony Page directs and, especially in the first act, seems to be aiming for the audience’s collective funnybone. But, as Molly once famously said, “It ain’t funny, McGee.” At its heart, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is a soul-searing experience, an exhausting and ultimately depressing evening in the theater.