While an Albee play usually belongs to the actors, the Jungle Theater’s current production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is overwhelmingly defined by director Bain Boehlke’s cold dark set, all flat black angles and thick bricks of furniture, with a heavy cross visible over the wet bar. The aesthetic is combination bachelor pad, funeral chapel, and tomb. But to paraphrase Bette Davis as she cradles her drink in All About Eve, you can’t start the funeral until you’ve finished with the embalming.
This Virginia Woolf is a deep descent, so long and uncomfortable that at the Tuesday night opening, a significant fraction of the audience failed to return after the second intermission. It was their loss, since it’s in the third act that this production is at its best; Boehlke’s cast are better at finding the pained humanity in Albee’s conclusion than they are in cracking the cruel zingers of the first two acts. Accordingly the production drags early on, when it should snap like a whip, but compels at the end as the actors reveal the tender hearts under the thorny carapaces they’ve been using to abuse one another—and us.
|who’s afraid of virginia woolf?, presented through may 30 at the jungle theater. for tickets ($20-$35) and information, see jungletheater.org.|
The classic 1962 play takes place between 2 a.m. and dawn at the home of George (Stephen Yoakam) and Martha (Michelle Barber), a middle-aged married couple who have invited young marrieds Nick (Sean Michael Dooley, who took the role just days before opening when a medical emergency forced Sean Neely to leave the production) and Honey (Jane Froiland) over for a drink after a faculty party. For reasons both simple and complex, George and Martha have a habit of tearing remorselessly into one another, and by the time the night is over, Nick and Honey have been torn apart as well.
George and Martha have been slinging mud at one another for a long time, and Barber and Yoakam portray them as muddy indeed. Both actors are precise and tireless, and they locate their characters deep at the bottom of decades of abuse, pain, and regret. There are some laughs in this production, but as Albee productions go, this one is not very funny. Yoakam and Barber take no delight in their witticisms; they land them like tired, thudding body blows. It’s consistent with the characters, but it doesn’t make the show very much fun to watch.
Dooley is more dynamic, as a crafty young man whose attempts to achieve bonhomie with George and flagrante with Martha don’t go quite as planned. Froiland is the bouncy lemon slice in this Molotov cocktail, which makes her character particularly welcome in this dour production—but she’s also the least believable. Though Honey’s dimbulb, ultrasincere character is meant to contrast comically with George and Martha, Froiland and Boehlke make her so cartoonishly ditzy in the early scenes that Froiland has to upshift like Danica Patrick to get to the dark place Honey eventually must visit.
The characters drink constantly—hard liquor, straight up or on the rocks. They put away so much booze, in fact, that even for hardened alcoholics like George and Martha it would seem to test the limits of human endurance. Discussing the fact with my friend, a theater professional, I wondered whether the superhuman boozing represented a deliberately unreal element. My friend guessed that it was to give the characters something to do besides sit around while they talked—which, of course, is also one of the main reasons for drinking in real life.
At any rate, the production makes the audience authentically queasy in this as well as in other respects. By the time it’s over, you’ll feel kind of like you do after a night of hard drinking: some good times have been had, some truths have been told, you’re exhausted, and you never want to see another drop of alcohol in your life. Well, at least not until tomorrow night.