For its current production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater has harnessed a constellation’s worth of star power, including Oscar- and Tony-winning actress Mercedes Ruehl, one of the country’s hottest young directors, David Esbjornson, and an actor who’s most widely known for going where no man (excepting William Shatner) has gone before. The investment pays stunning dividends; under Esbjornson’s deft direction, the high-wattage cast lends blistering urgency to Albee’s long night’s journey into day.
The success of this production is almost predestined. Esbjornson is fresh from directing Albee’s latest, “The Play About the Baby,” in New York. Patrick Stewart, who plays George, recently appeared in the Broadway premiere of Arthur Miller’s “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan,” also directed by Esbjornson. Carrie Preston, this production’s Honey, played Miranda to Stewart’s Prospero in George C. Wolfe’s 1995 staging of “The Tempest.” Their collective experience shows; Esbjornson brings striking clarity to Albee’s hyper-naturalistic, psychologically tangled milieu. The actors, meanwhile, feed off one another as though they’ve been working together for years.
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Elegantly solving the problems posed by the Guthrie’s thrust stage, Esbjornson and scenic designer Christine Jones set the scene — a collegiate battleground strewn with books and empty liquor bottles — against an artificial backdrop of autumnal twilight. Their staging adds an element of theatricality — as though George and Martha were cutting each other to pieces in a fish bowl — that seems perfectly fitting: The couple’s famously tempestuous marriage is, after all, a sort of ritualized danse macabre, played out for their house guests, Honey and Nick. George and Martha, America’s metaphorical founding father and mother, are the proverbial nuclear family, cemented by the tenets of mutual assured destruction.
Esbjornson has a reputation for generosity with actors, and, in this production, he lets the veteran cast do most of the heavy lifting. Stewart is, as always, magnificent to behold. With shoulders slumped unevenly and necktie puffing from behind an ill-fitting gray suit, he’s the image of a man turning indecorously to dust. Stewart uses his familiar patrician voice, so perfectly suited for Shakespeare, to wonderful effect. When he speaks daggers to Martha, each riposte is sharpened by the actor’s fierce intellect.
As Martha and George’s bedeviled guests, Preston and Bill McCallum orbit Stewart like moths around a light-bulb. Preston plays Honey as a shrinking violet, wobbling in her high heels and laughing nervously as she grows progressively drunker. Honey seems, at first, to be the most sympathetic character in this decidedly unsympathetic party. Later, when her physical and emotional weakness is bared, Preston turns sympathy to pathos. Honey becomes an example of illusion’s failure to protect the deluded.
McCallum, the only Guthrie regular in the cast, shines even in this luminous company. His Nick initially seems the embodiment of the safe and sane Organization Man. When Nick is destroyed — intellectually by George in the second act, and sexually by Martha in the third — McCallum seems to crumble physically, as though he were turning into a younger version of his psychically castrated host. Indeed, by evening’s end, Nick and Honey have devolved into Martha and George, junior division.
Any actress playing Martha, the queen of Albee’s nest of vipers, must contend with Uta Hagen and Elizabeth Taylor, both of whom defined the role for a generation. Ruehl gives a brave, emotionally exhausting performance, which, if not definitive, ranks her with those illustrious predecessors. Ruehl is an overwhelming physical presence. She uses her buxom mass to great effect, bobbing her head and shaking her hips as she walks.
Her Martha is invigoratingly obscene, and Ruehl, whose voice sounds as if she starts each morning by gargling with gravel, plays her as a braying virago. The contrast with Stewart’s refined demeanor could not be more pronounced, and even seems to introduce an element of class conflict into Martha and George’s ongoing war of attrition.
But in Ruehl’s finely drawn portrait, Martha’s frank carnality is only another illusion covering deep and raw wounds. When she utters her final animal howl — the roped muscles on Ruehl’s neck straining — Martha’s strength makes her surrender all the more devastating. The laughter dies in the audience’s throat; it’s replaced, as in Martha and George’s kingdom of self-preserving lies, by a piercing silence.