Truth and illusion, who knows the difference anyway? That only grazes the surface of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf playing now at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre. Kicking off their 52nd season with the production that won a Tony Award for best play in 1963 as well as best revival of a play 50 years later, this salaciously scandalous, albeit pleonastic, drama is an emotional catharsis for the ages; the perfect way to launch a riveting new theatrical season. Directed by Fuzz Roark, the show digs deep into the desperately dysfunctional marriage of George and Martha, an older erudite couple whose evening, despite being 2 in the morning, has only just begun. The emotional gravity of Albee’s drama is gut-wrenching and builds exponentially in intensity as it spirals toward its harrowing conclusion.
Scenic Designer Alan Zemla creates a charming play space for Albee’s most renowned work, capturing the essence of both the early 1960s and the posh New England lifestyle of the well educated. The rich interior is layered with fine details, bright wooden accents against the lush forest green wall paint; a color defining intelligence. Zemla’s attention to detail, with the books slightly askew on the shelves and the mini bar inside the antique globe, creates the subtle intricacies of the set that transform it from a stage living room to a cozy well-lived in space.
Layering the effect of the life of tarnished prestige is Costume Designer Laura Nicholson. Creating appropriate attire that matches period fashion is Nicholson’s specialty in this production. Honey’s dress, the large ball of hideous peach lace with crinoline forever beneath the skirt, is a perfect fit for the vapidly ditzy character. Nicholson’s approach to creating elegance for Martha is visual perfection; the lasting look of sophistication with an air of muted sexuality shining through in both the ruffled navy number that starts the show and the shimmering black glitter gown with a sharp high side slit and deep cut cleavage line. Even the men look sharp in Nicholson’s vision of Albee, Nick looking polished in his full suit, tie and vest, while George looks more muted and rundown with his cardigan and earth tones.
Director Fuzz Roark tackles the verbose beast that is Albee’s signature play with vigorous success. The play is long, there’s no denying that, and heavily worded, ripe with repetition and convoluted dialogue, but Roark succeeds in maintaining a swift pace that allows the audience to enjoy the duration of the performance without feeling as if they’ve spent over three hours watching a play. His casting choices are sublime; the perfect age gap between the characters thoroughly enhancing the bizarre relationships that simultaneously convalesce and deteriorate throughout the show. Roark’s approach to the work, using a more recent revision which has spiced the language and cut minor unnecessary scenes, is a testament to his directing abilities; he has a solid grasp on the reality of Albee and how to present it to an audience.
The emotional gravity of this production immediately pulls you into the story of these four characters. Choosing to do such an intense show in such an intimate setting does the play a great service, really allowing the audience to absorb every moment of the show; breathing in the detritus of the decomposing marriage founded so deeply on a love that’s been lost through cynicism that verbal evisceration is par for the course. The raw talent exhibited by the actors in this production presents the audience with their vast and deep understanding of Albee’s abstruese plot.
Honey (Mary Czar) is a shallow character in this otherwise richly constructed work. Czar plays the character to the epitome of her existence, dippy and flighty bordering on obnoxious in her mere existence. When playing up the drunken aspect of her character Czar brings a wobbly physicality forward while maintaining the integrity of her simplistic mentality. She plays affectionately well against Nick (Zak Zeeks) and even takes to rebuking him in a minor outburst late in Act II.
Zeeks, as the standoffish upstart younger professor, gives a well-rounded performance creating disastrous pockets of explosive action between himself and George. The bristly relationship that roils caustically to the surface between the two males early during Act II is driven by his snappish tongue. His austere physical approach to the character dissolves as the alcohol is imbibed, splaying his body out over the furniture in a soused and sloppy amusing fashion. It’s the burning passion he exudes when flirting with Martha that radiates through his voice and body that really turns the audience’s head.
There is something unsettling about how calm George (Jim Hart) remains even when goading Martha (Valerie Lash). The pacing of his speech nearly drives you mad to listen to it, but it accents the character in such a peculiar fashion that it feels authentic. Hart has a uniquely eccentric sense of comic timing and line delivery that again serves Albee’s work in an ironically fitting manner. Living in his own disturbed little world he manages to remain focused and present even when withdrawing internally.
Lash, as the outspoken boisterous larger than life character, brings the epitome of a delicate balance to the incredibly dynamic duality of Martha. Her physical expressions carry the heavy emotional weight of the character’s plight with ease and her ability to rapidly change from blasé to furious with just the blink of an eye is stellar. Her phenomenal moment comes at the end of Act III with an emotional outburst of fully grounded hysterics that are truly haunting and disturbing to witness.
Hart and Lash have grounded the caustic nature of this married couple deep in the toxic roots of their relationship; a deliciously enthralling performance given by both. They present two types of story tellers, each grounded in their own reality; Hart playing the more subdued nostalgic version when he reminisces wistfully, albeit remorsefully, over the car wreck story, while Lash is the exact opposite. Her ecstatic excitability with jumpy, frenetic energy causes her to engage physically and vocally during her boxing story creating a rather manic experience for those watching.
The pair excel at verbal flagellation; an honest and authentic representation of George and Martha all wound up in one sensational show. Lash is a force to be reckoned with on the stage but Hart matches her fight for fight and emotion for emotion.
Spotlighters’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is truly a brilliant production.
Running Time: Approximately 3 hours and 20 minutes with 2 intermissions.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plays through October 6, 2013 at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre – 817 North Saint Paul Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-1225, or purchase them online.