The minute you sit on the periphery of Jim Othuse’s well-furnished, substantial-looking living room at Community Playhouse’s Howard Drew Theatre you know that there’s a kind of truth to be witnessed. What lies ahead are circa three hours of dynamic, compelling life made vivid and real by a fine quartet of Omaha actors.
Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf takes over the stage, grabbing your attention. Holding on to your fascination.
You’ve probably heard that this is a play full of seething anger and bitter recriminations. Ultimately you’ll see how and why. But director Hilary Adams and performers Charleen J.B. Willoughby and Brennan Thomas tellingly make it clear that intelligence, joviality and mutual verbal wit irrevocably binds together main contenders Martha and George. Within their circle of solid furniture and non-stop flowing bottles, sure, they will soon verbally slug it out. But, to start, they spar with snappy repartee and you see, despite eventual major combat, something like love inhabits their home.
Expect Mamet-like laughs. And epithets.
George is an Associate Professor of History at New Carthage University. Martha is the daughter of the President of that institution. (For those taking notes: “Carthage must be destroyed,” second century B.C. Roman senator Cato the Elder repeatedly declaimed.) After starting some major imbibing, internal dislocations surface, wherein Martha does major nagging and passive-aggressive George lands some of his own punches. Witnessing are guests, young, new on-campus, Honey and Nick who eventually experience collateral damage.
The three acts are titled “Fun and Games,” “Walpurgisnacht” and “The Exorcism.” The names of the games surface in the first act, such as “Humiliate the Host,” “Hump the Hostess,” and “Bringing up Baby” all of which further define what’s to come. As for the word “games,” remember that, in Cato the Elder’s day, gladiatorial games featured violent death.
Much has been read into what Albee wanted to say by evoking such a fractured relationship. You needn’t be concerned about that. Rather, watch the fireworks explode for their own noise and color. It’s probable that you won’t find this casting light on a marriage of your own. Let’s hope not. But, surely, there have been such imperfect unions about which you know.
Albee’s fast-paced dialogue zings, sears and sizzles. Willoughby and Thomas give virtuosic readings, at the same time, clearly defining the differences between them. Phenomenally, she comes across as raucous, sensual, vibrant and volatile, brilliantly going up and down the scales of tone, expressing anger, frustration, vulnerability and more. He gives thorough definition to passive-aggression, with wry smiles and unbendable body language. On opening night, parts of George’s tumbling wit and sharp snarkiness got lost in Thomas’ rush to express it all. Nothing major, though.
Megan Friend and Steve Hartman have to find their own ways to make Honey and Nick significant. Hartman successfully keeps Nick sturdy, as if he can’t get hurt. Friend’s Honey believably seems to have not yet grown up. Neither gets as complex as possible, but, amid Willoughby and Thomas, how can they not be overshadowed?
Director Hilary Adams exceptionally makes all this work superbly. It moves with great pace and timing, shading and expression.
The well-known surprise in the third act seems gratuitous. And too drawn-out. As if Albee needed to wrap up the conflict in a dramatic way rather than just let everything simmer down. Maybe in 1962, when he wrote it, a lack of resolution was too alien. Certainly a substantial point is intended; I’ve just been reading several analyses which justify that. Without doubt, I’m in a minority with my opinion.
Don’t consider the title to infer something for children, a cartoon-like spin- off from Walt Disney’s The Three Little Pigs. This ain’t for kids, baby. Albee says it is a typical kind of university intellectual joke adding “Who’s afraid of living life without false illusions?” Certainly, you need not be afraid of what’s in store; you won’t get hurt, even if he characters do. Albee’s brilliant dialogue and his remarkable premise keep on whirling and spinning. Punch after punch after punch. It scores on points.