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Drunken rage onstage

April 12, 2013

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?: A Theatre Review

As endings go, it would be hard to top Mammoth’s local theatre company.

The Mammoth Lakes Repertory Theatre (MLRT) ends its season with a fiery explosion in the form of the expletive-laced, tremulous relationship between George and Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

The play recently celebrated its 50th anniversary with a revival by Steppenwolf Theater Company on Broadway, where the play premiered (interestingly, George was played by Tracy Letts, the playwright for “August: Osage County,” which Sierra Classic Theatre will be presenting in May). 

Albee received a Tony award for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and rocketed his way toward being one of the top playwrights of his generation.  Although the once taboo subjects and sexual frankness of the play don’t pack the same punch on stage as they did in 1962, this contemporary classic is a play better seen than just read, for that’s the only way to truly experience the absolute brutal nature of America’s first couple of dysfunctional mayhem.

Martha is the daughter of a New England college president. With her history professor husband George, the couple hosts history’s most sadistic and unbearably tense “nightcap” for a young and handsome biology professor Nick and his “mousy” wife, Honey. 

Throughout the night, the middle-aged couple turns the resentment they have toward one another into a source of entertainment. They don’t just attack each other, but turn their abusive form of game play on their not-so-innocent guests.

The title alludes to modernist author Virginia Woolf, who was known for seeking out realism not only in her writings but in her life as well. On the one hand, the title of the play is asking, “who’s afraid of living life without illusions?” as Albee described the title’s origin.

On the other hand, there’s the allusion to the song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” which is reminiscent of the angry egoistical side of the characters who try to take everyone around them down the same emotional spiral they are riding.

Over the decades, several productions have been faulted for putting too much emphasis on drunkenness and Martha’s loudmouth cruelty. In this production, though, director Shira Dubrovner focuses more on the humanity that lives within George and Martha’s sadistic nature.

In order to have a fair understanding of why things happen in the play, the audience must understand the characters are never sober. Drunkenness is the most civilized illusion George and Martha use to hide the truth from themselves. After all, who’s to say what anyone will remember in the morning?

Dubrovner’s version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” amplifies the dark comedy, along with the interdependency George and Martha have for one another. While the volatile couple is well known for the sad side of their relationship, for how their messy games eventually give way to the truth, it’s their savagely funny banter that keeps tension from being unbearable.

Bookshelves line the walls, magazines lay under the coffee table, and records scatter unsorted on a back table. The set design by Tim Casey and Madeline Roy displays the messy chaotic charm of George and Martha’s rapport, without being overwhelming.

Keeping the volume up not only for Martha’s explosive moments but also in her moments of child-like terror is Juliana Olinka, who recently directed MLRT’s production of “The Miracle Worker.”  Olinka gives Martha a marinated-in-whiskey voice and her bruised emotions a devilish intensity.

Kevin Worden plays George, alternating between shlumpy charm, and unrestrained viciousness. Worden’s George doesn’t appear to feel much guilt for exposing Nick and Honey’s own imperfections in a nasty game called “Get the Guests” or several other shenanigans meant to cause unease in those around him.

Drew Foster and Lauren Patridge gracefully play the less-than-secure husband and wife, Nick and Honey, whose names are never introduced to the audience.

Honey spends most her time soaked in brandy, and always one step behind the rest of the party. Except for the occasional gut-wrenching outburst, Patridge plays a majority of her role with her eyes, going from giggle-fits, to sick, to upset, experiencing her own party in her head.

Foster last appeared in “A Dickens’ Christmas Carol A Traveling Travesty” and is now giving drama his best work, playing Nick with a mild-mannered guard, and a glimmer of cocky dismissive attitude as he attempts to climb his way up the faculty ladder.

After three hours of invigorating yet unbearable tension, it’s an emotional relief to see the light come into the room, and reveal George and Martha may not be a match made in heaven, but they are equals in love and war.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is now playing at the Edison Theatre until April 21.  But you might want to get your tickets soon, as some nights are already sold out. Thursday through Saturday showings are at 7 p.m. and Sunday showings are at 4 p.m. General Admission is $20, Student and Senior admission is $18. Visit mammothlakesfoundation.org/theatreor call 760-934-6592 for more information.

Juliana Olinka, left, plays Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” opposite Kevin Worden, who plays George, second from left. Also in the Mammoth Lakes Repertory Theatre production are Honey and Nick, played by Lauren Patridge and Drew Foster. Photo/Bluebird Imaging
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