Craziness, says one character in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is “the refuge we take when the unreality of the world weighs too heavy on our tiny heads.” Edward Albee’s 1962 play, a blistering critique of the Leave It to Beaver mystique surrounding marriage, is currently playing at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theatre in a stunning, ferocious production by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. As social commentary, it's possibly less explosive to an audience accustomed to reality-television meltdowns and public scandals, but as theater, it's dynamite.
The play opens with a moderately uncomfortable conversation between a married couple, George and Martha, who are returning home late from a party. The barbs, even at this early stage, are flying between the middle-aged pair, played flawlessly by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor Tracy Letts (author of August: Osage County and Superior Donuts) and Steppenwolf’s Amy Morton. Amid the clutter and detritus of Todd Rosenthal’s exquisite set—with books, ashtrays, and half-finished drinks on every surface in an otherwise picture-perfect sprawling house—George, an academic, and Martha, the daughter of George’s boss (the president of the fictional New Carthage University) trade insults for sport. “I’m six years younger than you are. I always have been and I always will be,” he gloats to her. She counters: “You’re going bald.”
Any hope that the couple’s hostility toward each other might be countered by the presence of others is dashed when two late guests arrive: Nick (Madison Dirks), a young professor of biology at New Carthage, and his “mousy” wife, Honey (Carrie Coon, who plays the most convincing drunk I’ve ever seen in theater or film). Encouraged by the spectators and a seemingly endless round of fresh drinks, the couple’s antics quickly descend into a nightmarish battle of revelations, in which it’s hard to perceive what’s real and what’s invented by the characters for dramatic effect.
The ugliness of Albee’s characters is unfailingly heightened by how sympathetic the cast can make them appear, even in moments of unbelievable cruelty. In the first two acts, Martha is the aggressor, pushing and pushing her husband until he’s a fragment of himself. But after she realizes he’s becoming impervious to her taunts, the hierarchy suddenly shifts, leaving George with almost unlimited power. It’s hard not to see the two couples as mirror images of each other, with George and Martha serving as an alarming reminder of what the younger pair will inevitably become.
Albee’s talent for absorbing an audience is almost unparalleled, and it demands constant commitment from the cast. If characters appear too hideous, our instinct is to look away; if they’re too sympathetic, some of the tension is lost. Director Pam MacKinnon—an experienced Albee interpreter and one of the playwright’s favorites—strikes precisely the right balance, appealing to our baser rubbernecking instincts without alienating us altogether. At one point, Honey cradles an empty brandy bottle in her arms wistfully, in a gesture that’s both absurd and heartbreaking. Letts is a fascinating performer, and he carries the weight of the show with his complex, yoyoing outbursts, as vicious as he is empathetic. Martha is a snarling, hideous creature who gradually becomes pitiable.
“I have no sense of humor,” says Martha at one point. “A fine sense of the ridiculous but no sense of humor.” This quote also works nicely as an interpretation of Albee’s rapier-sharp comedy: He forces an audience to laugh even as they’re appalled by themselves. Both Steppenwolf and Arena Stage have done a superb job in highlighting what a master playwright he is, and how much he still has to teach us.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theatre through April 10. Buy tickets ($40 and up) at 202-488-3300 or at Arena Stage’s Web site.