Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

By - Mar 30th, 2009 03:43 pm

On the surface Edward Albee’s 1951 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – currently playing at The Alchemist Theater – seems to be nothing more than an intellectual pun on the verse “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?”, having little to do with the author herself. However, the disenchanted couple at the core of the play – Martha and George, performed with supple intensity by Sharon Nieman-Koebert and Mike Webber – exist in a world not so dissimilar to Woolf’s. They live  in a world of domestic and academic impotence. Although Virginia and her husband, Leonard Woolf, shared a love and fondness for one another, they lived in separate worlds within their home. This lack of excitement, this confinement, led Virginia and her restless soul to have an open affair, as we see Martha attempting here in front of George with the vigorous and handsome Nick, a newcomer to the university that Martha’s father runs and where George teaches history. Like Woolf, Martha seeks a natural vigor lacking in George. At the heart of the story a couple looks to season the domestic blandness of their life together, and in doing so, deconstruct and reconstitute their love for one another.

Kirk Thomsen, who also directs the production, plays Nick with a naive seriousness that is the complete opposite of George’s (and Martha’s) sharp condescension and bitter wit. After a party welcoming the new faculty, Nick and his pretty but innocuous wife, Honey (played by Liz Shipe) venture to the older couple’s home for a nightcap. It’s Martha’s fawning over Nick that sparks the tinder of tension hovering between her and George into an all out fire. Nick and Honey become pawns in the older couple’s power struggle. As they’re being moved from square to square, Martha informs them of her child, to which George pleads to her: “No, Martha. Don’t you bring that up, Martha. Don’t you dare talk about our son, Martha!” With this revelation, shrouded in mystery, dark secrets begin to spill out of both couples, and we see an inversion of the appearance of the younger couple’s happiness. By the end of the night, both couples come face to face with the delusional foundations on which their relationships are built.

The most entertaining scene occurs when Martha and Nick – their sexual tension coming to a head – grind and twist to some very hip Surf Rock, while George watches helplessly with a brandy-comatosed Honey from the couch. Think of the scene from Blue Velvet when Dean Stockwell – from his anachronistic, pastel-consumed drug house – sings Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” for a frenzied Dennis Hopper (as George is here) and a group of oblivious and eerily sterile women (as Honey is here) who sit around knitting, unaffected by the storm on hand. For a brief minute the play turns into a musical: Martha and George trade syncopated insults in tune with the music, and level-headed Nick provides the pragmatic chorus, “Jesus Christ you two, enough!” The scene culminates with an impressive ballet of attacks: George and Martha go after one another, a lamp falls over, Nick intervenes, and Honey puts on her best Lynchian shock-and-awe face. The actors do a terrific job calculating this scene, as their anger is palpable and the physical climax is completely believable.

Albee had an affinity for the Modernists, those looking to bite through appearance to the reality of things. On top of the allusion to Woolf in this production, there are also ones to James Joyce, when Martha describes George as “A portrait of a man drowning,” and to D.H. Lawrence, when she mentions his novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” in reference to her love affair with a gardener in her younger days, one that her “daddy” and the “school mistress” squashed.

Complete schedule and ticket information for all Milwaukee’s stages can be found at Footlights online.

Categories: VITAL

0 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Um, for the record, the play was first produced in 1962. ALbee wrote his first play, The Zoo Story, in 1958. Virginia Woolf was his first full-length play.

  2. Anonymous says:

    correct. that’s my mistake.

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