This entirely engrossing Steppenwolf Theater production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” begins a notch quieter than usual — a depiction of near normal domesticity. And it ends quietly as well, in a moment filled with achingly honest vulnerability and tenderness. Taken together, that quietude lasts maybe 10 minutes. The remaining three hours is a relentlessly intense version of Edward Albee’s 1962 masterpiece about marital loathing and gamesmanship at a New England college. Despite its geographic setting, this is Albee — if you will — Chicago-style.
Tracy Letts and Amy Morton have a history with George and Martha and with each other. She has directed him as George in the play before, and as longtime members of the Steppenwolf ensemble, they’ve played a married couple umpteen times. Most famously, Letts wrote the role of Barbara Westin, like Martha the daughter of a beloved academic father, for Morton in his Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County,” arguably the best American drama about familial viciousness since… well, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
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It may well take this type of history to achieve the fierceness onstage here. Each put-down, no matter how oblique, exposes a raw nerve.
The lanky Morton is actually an atypical Martha. As an actress, Morton exudes down-to-earth common sense far more than unfulfilled glamour or sexual aggression. But there is unquestionably something unguarded about this Martha, who, under Pam MacKinnon’s direction, doesn’t maintain unlimited relish for the evening’s sport. In fact, she almost seems ready to call a truce at points, only to be urged by George into embracing “total war.”
Letts’ George is no hen-pecked husband. Used to humiliation, perhaps, he’s now invulnerable, which invests him with most of the power. Usually, George possesses a shy reserve that explains why he failed as head of the history department. In Letts’ take, George isn’t diffident or insecure; he has such a superiority complex that he can barely talk to anyone without cruel condescension.
These are both exciting, rich performances, and while they capture a different dynamic, they get the game-playing nature of Albee’s dialogue just right, confounding the houseguests. Carrie Coon makes an especially sensitive, sympathetic Honey, while as Nick, Madison Dirks has some competitive fight in him, as well as a smugness that makes it fun to watch him squirm.
Todd Rosenthal’s set has so many sloppily placed books that they seem to be coming from the crevices. It’s an interesting visualization of the interpretation here. This is George’s house just as much, and perhaps even more, than it is Martha’s.
Show is slated to move to Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage as part of an Albee festival following its Chicago run.