WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
This is Jerry's review of the original Blackbird Theatre production from a year ago.
One of the signs of a great work of art is the way it holds up to repeated viewings. I’ve seen at least five productions of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and feel like I know the play almost by heart. Watching it again in the cozy confines of the Cultch, I was almost tempted to deliver some of the key lines along with the actors. Fortunately, I refrained. But I did sometimes laugh in anticipation of a juicy comic remark. I still found it gripping, awfully funny (“It was funny but it was awful,” Martha says at one point, describing the play perfectly), and tremendously moving. John Wright’s Blackbird Theatre production does full justice to Albee’s remarkable script.
The script is so strong that it may be impossible to produce a bad version of the play as long as the director casts actors capable of handling those epic battlers, George and Martha. And Wright has cast perfectly. Gabrielle Rose is sexy and blowsy, powerful and desperate in ways that evoked for me both the movie’s Elizabeth Taylor and Vancouver’s other most memorable Martha, Janet Wright. But Rose makes the role very much her own, carving her lines with crisp, acidic diction into sharp weapons with which to skewer George: “I swear if you existed I’d divorce you.”
Kevin McNulty’s dishevelled George gives even better than he gets. He takes a lot of abuse from Martha (“You married me for it,” she points out), but with his quiet, smouldering sarcasm he actually controls the situation from start to finish. Once Martha breaks their rule by talking about their son, then throws down the gauntlet and they declare “total war,” this George knows he’s going to win—and he knows the price they’ll both have to pay for his victory. McNulty is magnificent, proving once again that he’s among our very best actors. This may in fact be his role of a lifetime.
Craig Erickson plays Nick, the studly young biology professor, with just the right mask of false modesty, his smugness nicely eviscerated in the end by both Martha (“houseboy!”) and George (“My god, you’ve got to have a swine to show you where the truffles are”). As his mousy wife Honey, Meg Roe turns in another of her fine performances. But Nick and Honey are really just foils in what is essentially a two-hander. They are audience, watching like the rest of us, amazed and appalled at what George and Martha can do to each other.
Even though the show clocks in at well over three hours (including two intermissions), it never seems long. But it’s not perfect. Albee’s stage action consists almost entirely of going to the bar to get drinks, and it’s pretty unbelievable that people could drink as much as they do, from two to five in the morning, and remain conscious, much less articulate. I also blame Albee for helping create the theatrical convention whereby characters must remain in a room with each other, sustaining a dramatic argument no matter how much more logical it would be for them to leave. And as perfect as 98% of this production is, Wright and his actors don’t quite get the ending right. The blocking is awkward in Martha’s final breakdown. And in the quiet coda, as the dawn breaks, George and Martha, for the only time in the play, seem actorly. But these are quibbles.
This a true American classic, one of those seminal works of the early 1960s (like Catch-22 and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) that looked ahead to the anti-establishment culture that emerged later in the decade, revealing the lies at the heart of the American Dream. And as it has done so often in its short history, Blackbird delivers the goods with a flourish. This is a great production of a great play.