REVIEW: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Steppenwolf)

  
  

All’s fair in love and total war

  
  

Woolf-3

   
  
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
   
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
  
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by
Pam MacKinnon
at
Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through Feb 13  |  tickets: $20-$75  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Don’t go to Steppenwolf’s current production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf expecting histrionics—at least, not at the level of scene chewing wrought by many other productions or in the famous movie with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Director Pam MacKinnon, who brought Edward Albee to Chicago for consultation at the beginning of the cast’s rehearsal, keeps a tight, controlled, and calculated rein on George (Tracy Letts) and Martha’s (Amy Morton) endless war. Theirs is a Cold War that begins casually enough with Martha’s little insults at George and George constantly correcting Martha’s language. Of course, their digs, jibes and strategic one-upmanship quickly escalate to a hot war—a hot war that requires an audience in Honey (Carrie Coon) and Nick (Madison Dirks), newcomers to the university George teaches at. One suspects a hot war is what they’ve wanted all along, no matter what the devastating costs to themselves or how many innocent corpses they leave in their wake.

Woolf-1Watch out, Nick and Honey. Who knew university life in a small town could be so fraught with danger? But George and Martha, bogged down in their own marriage and stifled career prospects, show the newcomers a taste of things to come at New Carthage’s institution of higher learning. George’s lack of advancement in the university’s history department gives Martha plenty of ammunition to assault his manhood; while the sexual accessibility of university wives, give Nick and George plenty of excuse to deprecate the whole notion of marital fidelity or professional advancement according to merit.

Happily, MacKinnon’s deliberate, exacting and controlled direction pays off in spades. The casual, understated and fluid way in which George and Martha debase each other or, from time to time, throw sidelong insults at their guests, practically draws the whole audience into the living room—into George and Martha’s “theater of war.” Only having a drink every time George pours a round would increase the feeling of familiarity with this situation and this couple. Once one is in, one is hooked. The cast almost seamlessly builds the tension to the point of no return. Steppenwolf’s production is within a hair’s breathe of perfection, what with Coon and Dirks freshly backing up old masters Letts and Morton at their seasoned finest.

Don’t be taken in by Steppenwolf’s advertising image for the show: Morton projects a Martha considerably more louche and tipsy on the poster than she ever gets to onstage. Onstage, her Martha, just as she boasts, really can hold her liquor; all the better to keep up controlled, savage verbal attacks as the night worsens. She and Nick clearly play “hump the hostess” for George’s cuckolded come-uppance and professional advantage, Martha’s sex appeal downplayed to a bit of cleavage. Thankfully, what Morton does not downplay, but expertly times, is Martha’s gathering, seething resentment at George. As for Letts, his performance pulls George deeply into himself, to instinctively attack from a defensive position, until his rage over Martha’s humiliation of him in front of Nick and Honey becomes too much.

To watch George’s face flush bright red just before an outburst is to know the depth of Letts’ craft and discipline. One does not–one cannot–dismiss George’s threats, no matter how soft-spoken or tossed off they seem. One takes them all the more seriously and feels all the more uneasy once they’re let loose. I’ve heard some say that this production exposes Martha as the greater monster. Not so. Letts’ George is equally monstrous to anything Martha can dish out—he simply chooses to talk softly while he’s figuring out his next move or his next lacerating remark.

As Honey, Coon does daffy drunk girl to perfection. She can go from silly to pathetic in a nano-second and signify both mindless fun and desperation in Honey’s jokes or interpretive dancing. The most vulnerable of all the characters, Honey easily reflects the damage a truly decadent environment wreaks on the naïve. Too clueless to know what is happening, she can neither oppose nor defend herself against the havoc George and Martha have drawn her and Nick into. Indeed, her abandonment by Nick, once Nick begins to try swimming with the sharks, seems almost a foregone conclusion. Coon earns that pathos and at moments steals the show from the other three.

Indeed, only Dirks reveals some blind spots in his interpretation of Nick. Laying low with Nick’s low-key participation the first act, Dirk’s performance really takes off in the second act, building clear camaraderie with George as he first gains Nick’s confidence, shifting into revenge when George betrays it. But Nick’s intentions become cloudy in the third act when, diminished to the humiliating status of “houseboy,” why Nick chooses to stay and wait out the final round between George and Martha becomes a muddled mystery. Nothing in the script explicitly indicates why. But Dirks has to form a clear motivation for that choice and play it distinctly for the audience or the credibility for Nick and Honey’s presence during the last stage of George and Martha’s total war is lost. It’s a small but critical omission in Dirks’ otherwise sterling performance.

Flaw aside, nothing stops George and Martha’s train to destruction. You’ll find few things more riveting this season than Morton’s depiction of Martha’s emotional devastation or Lett’s hint of sadistic control in the final tableau.

Revisit Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and you’ll see once again how Albee’s masterpiece not only captures the disturbing dynamic by which some couples love/hate each other, but also how skillfully he grafts America’s Cold War game playing onto the portrait of a marriage. Throughout the play George and Martha’s marriage–marriage in general–is on trial. But so are America’s wars by proxy, its fallacious attempts at nation building and its imperialist misadventures. When will we ever learn that, in the end, whatever we call “victory” just doesn’t make up for the body count?

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Woolf-2

 

Artists

Cast

Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Carrie Coon, Madison Dirks

 

Designers / Authors / Production

Author: Edward Albee
Directed by: Pam MacKinnon
Scenic Design: Todd Rosenthal
Costume Design: Nan Cibula-Jenkins
Lighting Design: Allan Lee Hughes
Sound Design: Michael Bodeen, Rob Milburn
Stage Manager: Malcolm Ewen
Assistant Stage Manager: Deb Styer
  
  

5 Responses

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  2. […] Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf  Steppenwolf Theatre (Dec 2010) Written by Edward Albee Directed by Pam McKinnon our review […]

  3. […] of Virginia Woolf? – the classic about the lies a couple tells to keep their dying love – saw a brilliant revival at Steppenwolf, featuring a terrifyingly dominant George played with ferocity by Tracy Letts. The […]

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