In any short list of the 20th Century’s greatest American plays one often sees “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Angels in America,” and Edward Albee’s searing, unforgettable “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”. It premiered on Broadway in 1962.
I can hardly recall a time when “Virginia Woolf” was not a part of my consciousness; that fact may account for some questionable personal quirks, but we’ll let that pass.
Meanwhile, Atlanta’s Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre is presenting Albee’s masterwork through Sept. 29; but please note that the cast I saw will only be performing through Sept. 1. Then, astonishingly, a second cast will perform Sept. 6-29. This takes chutzpah; it’s hard enough to find four actors who can do this work justice. To find four more makes Pinch ‘N’ Ouch the little theatre that could.
(I say “little” only because the theatre is quite intimate, with a seating capacity around 110—a guess. I happen to love intimate theatres: Every seat is an excellent one.)
Brian Ashton Smith is directing Cast 1 (I’ll call it). Artistic Director Grant McGowen is directing Cast 2.
I must first offer a thank-you to this theatre: This is my first live production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”). My longtime familiarity with the piece is due to the landmark 1966 film directed by Mike Nichols, with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis, and George Segal. I’ve seen it quite a few times, and read it. But upon viewing the play, I was struck again by the power of live theatre. The film cast is superb, but they can seem larger than life because of the nature of the medium (film) and the fact that Taylor and Burton were huge stars.
But to experience these characters as live flesh-and-blood people right in front of me was almost shocking; and one is struck anew with the enormity of Albee’s achievement.
We’re in a house on a New England college campus. The house belongs to George and Martha, a middle-aged couple. George (Jeffrey Charles Morgan) is an associate professor of history; Martha (Jennifer R. Lee) is his wife and the daughter of the college president, whom we never meet. They are returning home after midnight after a faculty party given by Martha’s father; unbeknownst to George, a young couple is about to join them for a nightcap.
They are Nick (Lucas Scott), a 28-year-old biology professor and his wife Honey (Michelle Pokopac). They are about to descend into the maelstrom, to paraphrase Poe. For George, 46, and Martha, 52, play games. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously said. They deal in “truth and illusion, George; you don’t know the difference.” George: “No, but we must carry on as though we did.” And so they do.
Nick and Honey realize that they have walked into a hotbed of contentiousness; at first they’re embarrassed, and then enmeshed. Nick says, “You and your wife seem to be having some sort of a—” George cuts him off: “Martha and I are having nothing. Martha and I are merely exercising, that’s all. Don’t pay any attention to it.” Nick: “I don’t like to become involved in other people’s affairs.” George: “You’ll get over that…musical beds is the faculty sport around here.”
So Honey and Nick stay, of their own free will. Nobody forces them. Much alcohol is consumed over the course the long evening—as in tons.
It occurs to me that I must be quite elliptical about the play and the plot. I cannot rob those who’ve never seen it the power and revelation and catharsis possible in one’s first viewing.
What I can do is tell you about the cast. It takes courage to take on iconic roles like these; like actors who take on Blanche and Stanley after Leigh and Brando in the 1951 film of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The actors must focus on the characters and the business at hand. And that’s what the intelligent, talented actors at Pinch ‘N’ Ouch do.
Neither George nor Martha is very happy with their lives or their marriage. Yet—and this is the important, wrenching truth—there is love there. There is the comfort of familiarity. Yet each has settled; as Martha says about George: “Whom I will not forgive for having come to rest; for having seen me and having said: yes, this will do; who has made the hideous, the hurting, the insulting mistake of loving me and must be punished for it. George and Martha: sad, sad, sad.”
Jennifer R. Lee is a convincing, powerful, heartbreaking Martha. Jeffrey Charles Morgan, in his college professor sweater, retaliates against Martha’s taunts with passive aggression, sullenness, stubbornness, and finally “total war,” as he finally suggests that he and Martha go at it. Mr. Morgan, like all four cast members, gets stronger and more dangerous, if you will, as the play moves on.
Incidentally, “Virginia Woolf” is three, fast-moving hours, with two intermissions. Need I say keep the kids at home, unless they’re older teenagers. There’s not much they haven’t heard.
Lucas Scott and Michelle Pokopac, as Nick and Honey, are fine, attractive young foils to George and Martha. They, too, gain much power as the play moves on. At the very beginning it was as though all four actors seemed a bit overwhelmed by this legendary, titanic play. Happily, that tentativeness passed very quickly. Ms. Pokopac shows a delicacy and vulnerability on Honey’s part that is quite moving. And Mr. Scott’s sexiness and swagger, threatening to George and alluring to Martha, serve him very well.
However, both Honey and Nick are in way over their heads, as George and Martha’s secrets, illusions, and games begin to inundate them all. Grant McGowen’s set works perfectly in this intimate space. And I cannot believe this is Brian Ashton Smith’s (a theatre and film actor) directing debut; it’s remarkable.
Needless to say, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” created a firestorm in 1962. The false optimism of the “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Leave It To Beaver” perfect American family idea was shattered. Some theatregoers and critics were horrified; others were exhilarated at this new voice in American theatre; the play won the Tony Award; Albee himself went on to win countless other awards for many plays, including three Pulitzers.
Oh—one more thing: in 2005, Albee authorized two script changes; I don’t like either one of them, and I can’t talk about them; but you needn’t worry. The play’s power is intact.
“Virginia Woolf” is in town; if you love “total theatre,” go.
For tickets and information, visit pnotheatre.org.