In most productions of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” George and Martha burst through their front door with war already declared. Keying off the CAPITALIZED dialogue and fraught stage directions that pepper Edward Albee’s printed text, they await latenight guests Nick and Honey with bile primed and self-loathing overflowing. But in this touring Broadway revival, helmer Anthony Page removes the caps and tones down the histrionics, making it impossible to dismiss the protagonists as stage grotesques. In Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin’s award-winning interpretations, they’re as real and familiar as the folks next door.
No sooner have George and Martha returned from her father’s Saturday night faculty soiree than their offhanded squabbling is revealed as the everyday defense mechanism of a couple uneasily approaching a quarter-century of married strife. They banter and needle over the origin of “What a dump,” or who has more teeth, with practiced, appreciative wit, Martha likelier to respond to George’s lowest blows with a head-back belly laugh than a snarl.
Albee’s act-one title “Fun and Games” is usually taken as ironic, but here it couldn’t be more literally appropriate: Show’s first hour is mordantly funny, almost nonstop. Page clearly means for us to empathize with these misfits who, despite years of disappointing themselves and each other, haven’t lost their determination to maintain the equilibrium through private jokes, pet names (like “Cyclops” and “Swampy”) that carry more affection than sting and, of course, bottomless bottles of hooch.
There’s nothing about this occasion — no more booze than normal; Nick just the latest in a series of ambitious academics cozying up to the prexy’s daughter — that would force the upending of their delicate balance, except for one misstep: Martha’s careless choice to share the existence of their (imaginary) son with a third party.
In this production, it’s more in sorrow than in anger that George realizes the necessity of exorcising their household of domestic fantasy, whatever the unforeseen price.
The advantages of Page’s uniquely sympathetic approach are manifest, and amount to an education in hitherto unexplored staging possibilities.
Whereas the two husbands usually are directed to be at each other’s throats throughout, Page allows George and Nick (a perfectly preening David Furr) ample time to relax and even bond over awful-wife stories. (Surely the most affable, least overtly hostile George ever, Irwin makes it believable that Nick and Honey would open up to him as fully as they do.)
Martha’s latenight fling with the studly biology prof is no longer the calculated vengeance of the slattern, but an improvisation designed to get any attention at all from her cerebral, distracted spouse. Through numerous glances, Turner persuades us that Martha genuinely loves and cherishes George, and that this is the first time she has gone beyond flirtation with any of the college’s Young Turks.
That it ends so badly allows Turner to transform Martha’s third-act summary of her marriage from a self-loathing indictment to a heartbreakingly sincere confessional. Her repeated “Sad, sad, sad” becomes a simple, rueful realization, not an incantation.
To be sure, starting the drama at a simmer instead of a quick boil means the evening lacks some of the visceral excitement traditionally associated with the piece. George’s stunted emotional range is such that the first game, “Humiliate the Host,” goes by with limited impact — only the narrowed eyes hint at the humiliation — and his physical attack on Martha seems too extreme for the moment.
Moreover, prevailing naturalism causes any untoward theatricality to obtrude, notably the off-kilter Honey of Kathleen Early. Sounding like Sandy Dennis channeled through Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine, she regularly pulls us out of act one through overdone naivete. (In fairness, once brandy gets the better of Honey, Early contributes show’s best physical comedy, and one of its more chilling emotional climaxes when she realizes Nick has revealed her secrets.)
Once Sonny Boy and the house guests have been polished off for good, John Lee Beatty’s beautifully realized set is left for the occupants to knock around in, and the sheer act of turning off all the lamps becomes excruciatingly painful. Immobile in the gradual dawn (a triumphant final image from Peter Kaczorowski), George and Martha huddle terrified of the unknown, as which of us is not; and we cannot mutter to ourselves the usual, “Oh, those monsters,” but rather think, “Oh, those poor people; I know them; I am them.”