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The Theatre of the Absurd…WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF @ Lakeland Civic Theatre

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Edward Albee, author of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF,  now in production at The Lakeland Civic Theatre, is one of the best known Theatre of the Absurd American writers.  This form of theatre, which was at its apex shortly following World War II is based, in part on existentialism, and asks “what is the purpose of existence?”

Absurdist playwrights create situations in which the characters are caught in hopeless situations and repeat meaningless actions.  The plots may go beyond realism.  The stories often highlight individuals who seem to have no purpose in life and are caught in situations where their communication breaks down.  Any hope for rationalism gives way to illogical speech and leads to the highest form of dysfunction, silence.

Albee, who was adopted at an early age, led a life of luxury, but was seemingly denied love by parents who didn’t really know how to raise a child.  They gave him the opportunity to go to the finest schools, but never bonded with him.  His background is often credited with creating in him a hostile view of society and relationships.

Albee’s writing career has been filled with highlights.  He received three Pulitzer Prizes for drama—A DELICATE BALANCE (1967), SEASCAPE (1975), and THREE TALL WOMEN (1994).   Interestingly, his WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, considered by many theatre historians to be his greatest work, was not honored with a Pulitzer.  It was selected for the award by the drama jury, but the advisory committee, with no explanation, overruled the selection and gave no award that year.  Rumors for the action centered on Albee’s being openly gay, which was repugnant to the conservative board.   It is interesting that Albee, himself, states “I am not a gay writer.  I am a writer that happens to be gay.”

Albee’s WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF is a classic example of absurdist writing which probes the modern condition.  It contains biting dialogue by highlighting the dysfunctional relationship between two people who seemingly have only one purpose…the psychological destruction of each other.

The play centers on Martha and George.  He is a seemingly inept professor at the small New England college whose President is Martha’s father.  The duo has been married for many years, use alcohol to escape from their miserable existence and play word games to torture not only themselves, but anyone else who enters their chaotic home.

One evening, after a faculty party, a young couple, Nick, a new Biology instructor, and his wife, Honey, are invited by Martha, to come over for drinks.  Little do they know the verbal torture session that is about to take place.

Alcohol flows freely, secrets are exposed, and the end result is an emotional bloodbath.  Each horrific episode is keyed or ended with George and/or Martha’s repetition of the words, “who is afraid of Virginia Woolf” chanted to the tune of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” from Disney’s THREE LITTLE PIGS.

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF has three acts.   “Fun and Games” lays the foundation for what is to come through a series of verbal, physical and emotional expository revelations.  “The writing of the first act is often hailed as some of the greatest in all of the American theatre.”  The second act, “Walpurgisnacht,” takes its theme from the night that witches meet and Satan appears.  In “The Exorcism,” the evicting of demons and other spiritual entities from a person or area through elaborate ritual, take place..

The Lakeland production, under the direction of Martin Friedman, is compelling.  The acting is excellent, the tension often gets unbearable.  The audience laughs and wonders why they would be expressing such a positive emotion to such terrible verbal destruction of others.  The ending leaves both the audience and the actors exhausted.

The Lakeland cast is not alone in their high fatigue level.  Uta Hagen, who played Martha in the original Broadway production, indicated that playing the role of Martha was like having a nervous breakdown every night.  In fact, the strain was so much on the actors, a separate cast played the matinees.  Having seen the original production, I can attest to not only the brilliance of Hagen, and her costar, Arthur Hill, but to the utter exhaustion of the experience.

Greg Violand’s take on George is fascinating to watch.  The role often engenders ranting and raving.   Violand’s George is almost laid back.  He seldom raises his voice.  Instead, he thrusts and hits his target through textured underplay.  He puts on the role of George and never takes it off.

Molly McGinnis does a consistent interpretation of the sexy boozed Martha.   She does not spew the venom of Hagen, nor Elizabeth Taylor, who was in the movie version with Richard Burton, but McGinnis does create a Martha to be reckoned with.

Studly Daniel Simpson is excellent as Nick, the young professor who has been coerced into marriage by a “pregnant” Honey, she of wealth and beauty. Katie Nabors well develops Honey, the  hypochondriac with psychological issues.

Friedman, in the program notes, explains that the multi-level open platform setting, covered with what looks like dulled-down aluminum foil, is part of his philosophy to strip down a play’s physical trappings and inspiring the audience and actors to focus on the language and storyline of the play.  Normally, I might agree with him, but I think this particular play works best in a set in which the walls literally come in on the actors, causing a claustrophobic atmosphere,  a cage that screams there is no place to hide, no place to escape.  As is, the wide expanse of the Lakeland Community College theatre stage is so massive that some of the tension dissipates into the wings and fly gallery, and, at times, the voices get lost.

Capsule judgment:  WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF gets a very credible staging at Lakeland’s Civic Theater.  The acting is of high quality.  Potential audience members should be aware that, though the show clicks along at a nice pace, this is a long three-act play with two intermissions.  It’s well worth a trip to Lake County to see this seldom produced classic.

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF runs Friday through Sundays from September 18-October 4, 2015 at Lakeland Community College, 7700 Clocktower Drive, Kirtland. For tickets call 440-525-7134.