[SPOILER NOTE: The following commentary on the new Broadway production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is predicated on the assumption that almost anyone who buys a ticket for this production is already familiar with this frequently revived play and/or the extraordinary film adaptation of that play.]
Having just taken issue with the “adaptation” of Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People” by Roundabout Theatre over its inauthenticity, it was a very pleasant surprise to experience Chicago Steppenwolf’s production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Of course, Edward Albee’s masterpiece is not handicapped by translation. But this truly remarkable interpretation remains faithful to the text while presenting this modern classic from a wholly new perspective. In fact, director Pam MacKinnon’s “Virginia Woolf” appears to be more like a sitting room social drama by Ibsen than the drunken brutal slugfest that animates most productions of Albee’s most highly regarded play [BTW: While I think Virginia Woolf is a very significant work in American theatre, I would give my preference to “A Delicate Balance” which deals with similar themes in a much more universal fashion].
George and Martha still play their games with relish and savage satisfaction. But they carry them on civilly, rarely shouting and always with a clarity that is frequently obscured in more explosive productions. They drink, but they are drunks fully capable of handling their liquor. There is never a moment that we see their excesses as alcohol induced; they know what they are doing, with the possible exception of one off-stage “mistake” by Martha.
By cooling down the atmosphere and focusing on the content of the character’s lines rather than their attitude toward each other, MacKinnon gives the play a new accessibility. This style allows the humor to flourish much more directly and the audience can actually process what the characters are saying rather than sitting with their hands over their eyes trying to avoid the next grotesque moment. The audience maintains a certain level of objectivity; we can appreciate how these four real people got the way they are and come to empathize (if not sympathize) with them.
In the Steppenwolf production, the game playing is handled like a Noel Coward play written by David Mamet: good clean savage fun. Albee’s plays are full of humor, dark and light, but this less histrionic approach to George and Martha’s games allows the audience to follow and draw meaning from Albee’s brilliantly crafted interchanges. George is usually played as a calm and calculating man of words and Tracy Letts certainly brings those qualities to his portrayal. But he also shows George’s vulnerability. Amy Morton’s Martha is not a drunken sourpuss, but a self-described “earth mother” capable of using base reality as a weapon against intellectual affectation. Carrie Coon dismisses the ditzy qualities usually attributed to Honey for a naiveté that makes the secrets behind her relationship to Nick that much closer to the secrets George and Martha use to protect themselves against their world. The portrayal of Nick in this interpretation becomes much more challenging for Madison Dirk. Without the histrionics of the traditional approach to this play, the audience is much more likely to wonder why he just does not grab Honey and leave in the first act. But as the play progresses, he takes on the challenge of playing the games and trying, unsuccessfully, to win. So when at the end of the play he says, “I think I understand this,” the audience can only hope he means the lesson is learned from the historian and he understands the implications for him and Honey.
The effect of this interpretation is quite different from the slugfest approach. At the end, the audience is not exhausted, but instead has the sort of catharsis that Ibsen and his successors infuse in the best of realistic modern domestic dramas. And like the best of the “Ibsenesque” plays, the audience leaves the theatre with insight and questions about some of the most profound issues about relationships, reality and unreality, and what each individual makes of him- or herself. As I reflected on Amy Morton’s uttering of Martha’s final lines “I am, George, I am,” in response to his gentle recitation of the play’s title, I could not help thinking of Osvald’s plaintive cry “The sun, the sun” at the end of Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” as his mother faces euthanizing her very real son (suffering from advanced syphilis) because of the illusions she and his father shared about their marriage and society.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is first and foremost a love story. George and Martha are deeply in love with each other. In fact, their love for one another is their protection from a world that has failed them (at least in their view). The games are part of the structure they have built as their defense mechanisms, their way of sharing a twisted unreality as a barrier to the horrific realities beyond their living room. They are codependent, as most truly authentic relationships demand. Their relationship is a “delicate balance” in which each fulfills the other’s need for protection from the outside world and a private stability in their inner lives.
George, the disillusioned historian, believes man has not learned from his mistakes and the biologist, Nick, with his alleged (albeit projected) chromosome tampering, is a prime example of that failure to heed history. “You take the trouble to build a society…based on the principles of… principle,” he tells Nick, “then all at once, through all the sensible sounds of man building, attempting, come the Dies Irae. And what is it? Up yours.” As Martha viciously points, George “is not the History Department, but is only in the History Department.” In fact, George completes Martha’s barb before she can complete it. Later George equates the corruption of society to the corruption of the university by challenging Nick to work his way to the top by “plowing a few pertinent wives” and offers Martha as the most pertinent “goose in the gaggle.” “You bet your historical inevitability she is!” he declares.
Martha’s disillusionment is a lot closer to home: she is disillusioned with herself. At the start of the third act, she declares her love for George. “George, who is good to me, and whom I revile; …who can make me happy and I do not wish to be happy, and yes I do wish to be happy,” she confesses to Nick, “whom I will not forgive for having come to rest; for having seen me and having said: yes; this will do.” And then she unknowingly predicts what we are about to see. “Some day… hah! Some night… some liquor-ridden night, I will go too far… and I’ll break the man’s back… or push him off for good… which is what I deserve.”
My take on “Virginia Woolf” has always been that this play is about George’s effort to rescue Martha. George and Martha, incapable of having a child, invent a mythical child. It probably started as silly joke, a cover-up for the emotional scarring from one (or both) of their infertility. “The kid bit,” as they call it, evolved into an elaborate protection device — one so close to their shared existence that it stabilized their interdependency commonly known as a marriage.
George warns Martha not to go too far with their guests, Nick and Honey. Whether George’s warning is a setup or a simple reminder of the rules, when George discovers that Martha has inadvertently let the cat out of the bag about “their son,” he realizes that Martha is no longer capable of separating illusion from reality; George cannot lose Martha to insanity. And that becomes the basis for what Albee calls “The Exorcism,” the title he gives to Act III — the death of their beloved “blue haired, blond eyed” son. Once George has “dispossessed” Martha, she quietly admits, “Sometimes when it’s night, when it’s late… I forget and I … want to mention him,” Martha concedes. She has lost her ability to control the game, to see the difference between the game and reality and George must rescue her by killing the child publicly. “Did you… did you… have to?” Martha asks. “Yes,” George replies, “It was… time.”
But Ms. MacKinnon’s production brings a different and perhaps more viable perspective to the exorcism. George is a historian: a man who labors to separate truth from fiction, reality from unreality. He even writes “a novel” about his own history; one in which he murdered his mother and caused the “accidental death” of his father. Like a good historian, he tries to maintain his objectivity by couching the book as fiction, a novel about a childhood friend, that he can freely discuss with Nick without personal implications. But the source of George’s tale is only thinly veiled and his confessional is turned against him by his father-in-law, the President of the university at which George is an assistant professor. Martha’s father threatens to dismiss George if he publishes the book and brings unwanted shame on the reputation of the College, ironically situated in “New Carthage.”
George and Martha have come to protect this story just as the mythical existence of their child must remain private. Their relationship depends upon their ability to control their shared myths that separate and protect them from their shared reality; without that separation they become part of the sick civilization George abhors and Martha cannot face. It does not matter whether George actually killed his parents or uses this story as an imaginary protection against his own history. So in this production, George and Martha are much more on an equal footing: each with a shared secret, each with a vulnerability that the other can use if their true relationship is endangered. Martha’s revelation to Nick that George is the boy in the story is clearly the turning point in George’s recognition that they must do away with their illusions and simply face life as it is, together. The exorcism is complete. “It will be better,” says George, “It will be… maybe.” “Just… us?” responds Martha. “Yes,” whispers George singing, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf.” “I am George,” Martha admits, “I am… (silence; tableau)” as the sun rises!