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
  
  

Steppenwolf Theatre announces 2010-2011 Season

 

Explores theme of “public/private self”

 

34th Season Kick-Off Celebration by Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Steppenwolf Theatre’s 2010-2011 Season

 

We live in public space. We live in private space. What happens when the door between them opens? Our public/private self. It’s an animating tension in each of us. A landscape both familiar and strange. Home to our darkness and our brilliance. Steppenwolf’s 2010-2011 season: five stories that navigate the fluid borders of our public/private self and illuminate the mysterious ways each acts upon the other.

 

  Detroit
  a new play by Lisa D’Amour
featuring Kate Arrington and Robert Breuler 
September 9 – November 7, 2010

 

  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  by Edward Albee
directed by Pam MacKinnon
featuring Tracy Letts and Amy Morton
December 2, 2010 – February 6, 2011

 

  Sex with Strangers
  by Laura Eason
directed by Jessica Thebus
featuring Sally Murphy and Stephen Louis Grush
January 20 – May 15, 2011

 

  The Hot L Baltimore
  by Lanford Wilson
directed by Tina Landau
featuring Alana Arenas, K. Todd Freeman, Yasen Peyankov
March 24 – May 29, 2011

 

  Middletown
  by Will Eno
directed by Les Waters
featuring Alana Arenas
June 16 – August 14, 2011

 

steppenwolfAbout Steppenwolf: Committed to the principle of ensemble performance through the collaboration of a company of actors, directors and playwrights, Steppenwolf’s mission is to advance the vitality and diversity of American theater by nurturing artists, encouraging repeatable creative relationships and contributing new works to the national canon.  The company, formed in 1976 by a collective of actors, is dedicated to perpetuating an ethic of mutual respect and the development of artists through on-going group work.  Steppenwolf has grown into an internationally renowned company of 42 artists whose talents include acting, directing, playwriting and textual adaptation. For additional information, visit www.steppenwolf.org, www.facebook.com/SteppenwolfTheatre and www.twitter.com/SteppenwolfThtr

Season subscriptions go on-sale to the public on Wednesday, March 10 at 11 a.m. Subscription Series packages start at $135.  Dinner/Theatre and Wine Series packages are also available.  To purchase a 2010-2011 subscription, contact Audience Services at 1650 N. Halsted, (312) 335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.

 

 

 

Theater Thursdays – “Good Boys and True” at Steppenwolf

For this week’s Theater Thursday, the League of Chicago Theatre has chosen Steppenwolf Theatre’s world-premier “Good Boys and True” (see my review here).   As the League describes the play:

A sex tape scandal. Secret lovers. A privileged childhood breeding a reckless adult. No, we’re not talking about Paris Hilton. Golden boy Brandon’s charmed life threatens to collapse when a disturbing videotape is found on campus. As the resulting scandal takes unexpected turns, Brandon’s mother (played by ensemble member Martha Lavey) must sort fact from fiction from family. 

For more information regarding special-priced tickets and reservations for cocktails, appetizers and talks with the actors, go to the League’s website: www.chicagoplays.com

REVIEW – “Good Boys and True” at Steppenwolf

Brandon Hardy shares a vulnerable moment with his mother ElizabethThe world-premier of Good Boys and True, now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre, starts out benign enough – the athletically handsome and privileged Brandon Hardy (earnestly played by the talented Stephen Grush) is giving a tour of his school, the elitist St. Joe’s Prep in Washington, D.C.  He points out the postcard-perfect school campus, and revels in the regurgitation of the school’s historical traditions, academic status and scholastic prowess.  We soon find out, however, that there is nothing benign about Brandon Hardy’s world.  Indeed, a tense and ominous malignancy slowly emerges, one that involves deep emotional wounds kept covered for over 20 years – wounds involving sexual abuse and manipulation.  And as this occurs, Brandon’s introspective mother Elizabeth (Martha Lavey – who is also Steppenwolf’s artistic director.) sees her family, and hence her world, crumble around her.  Good Boys and True, in the end, relays in a powerful way the tragic abuse of power by those drunk with hubris. Strengths: Top-notch acting, most notably in a poignant scene involving a meeting between the mother and the maligned lower-class high-school girl, Cheryl Moody (Kelly O’Sullivan).   Special mention also must be made to Tim Rock playing Brandon’s best friend and clandestine boyfriend.  Director Pam MacKinnon has done an excellent job bringing out many character nuances, especially as much of the dialogue is terse. 

Reservations: It’s understandable what playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is attempting – working the play around the relationship between Mother and son.  But this leaves a gaping emotional fissure in that the main protagonist is never seen on stage.  It is the father who is the most powerful and antagonistic of all of the characters; the root cause of the Hardy family’s choking dysfunction.  Yet Mr. Hardy is never seen.  And in keeping the father off-stage, Auirre-Sacase deprives us – and the play – of potentially implosive scenes and character development.

Summary: Even with its shortfalls, Good Boys and True remains a haunting and jarring piece of theatre.  Director MacKinnon has paced the ensemble well, as secret after tragic secret is uncovered.  Recommended.

Rating: ««« 

Related articles:

  • TimeOut Chicago – “Generation Next
  • YouTube interview with director Pam MacKinnon
  • Personnel and Show Times

    Playwright: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
    Director: Pam MacKinnon
    Sets: Todd Rosenthal
    Lights: Ann G. Wrightson
    Costumes: Nan Cibula-Jenkins
    Sound Design: Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen
    Dramaturg: Edward Sobel
    Asst. Director: Jonathan Templeton
    Featuring: Martha Lavey   (Elizabeth Hardy)
    Stephen Louis Grush   (Brandon Hardy)
    Tim Rock   (Justin Simmons)
    John Procaccino   (Coach Shea)
    Kelli Simpkins (Maddy)
    Kelly O’Sullivan  (Cheryl Moody)
    Nick Horst, Mark Minton, Trevor Reusch   (Ensemble)
    Dates: Through February 16, 2008
    Show Times: Tuesday through Sunday, 7:30pmSaturday and Sunday matinees at 2pmAdditional matinees on January 23, 30, February 6 (Wednesdays)