I hope set designer Kevin Rigdon had the foresight to put aside some money in his budget for extra paint, because Stark Naked Theatre's white-hot, blistering production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? peels it right off the walls. SNT should also have a dermatologist on call, not only for the actors whose skins gets surgically flayed, but also for the audience's safety. Not since the dungeons of the Inquisition has slow torture been this exquisite – or brutal.
Albee's masterpiece (1962), the standard bearer for every American family dysfunctional play that followed, remains in a class all its own. Nobody does black comedy better; no one has ever been as bitchy, as clever, as raw as Albee at his prime. Corrosively comic yet mundanely tragic, Woolf is American drama at some kind of pinnacle. Stark Naked doesn't let Albee down, and this production, at least acting-wise, is as definitive as you can find. (If only Rigdon's lighting would be as atmospheric as is his claustrophobic book-lined living room set with built-in ceiling. He keeps the lights on throughout, a harsh overhead glare. We don't know anything of the midnight, the moon, or the finale's daybreak except when someone informs us what time it is. Perhaps this is intentional: an interrogation room where the lights are always on and nobody sleeps. Maybe. But the play's delicious artifice gets tossed aside.)
But why carp when Albee blazes with such searing heat? We're in extra-fine hands, led throughout by perspicacious director Jennifer Dean who keeps this three-hour drama on constant high simmer. She knows exactly when to turn up the heat, scalding us all. Just be warned, though, those hands, armed with razors, lash out with cunning speed, inflicting death by a thousand cuts as the characters' pretenses are literally stripped bare. They wound each other with gleeful, ghoulish relish.
This blood-letting from long-married couple George and Martha (Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl, married in real life which gives the play extra frisson) is just another ritual in their love/hate relationship as hosts of this after-party from hell. Drunk and rowdy, vulgar Martha, daughter of the college president, wallows in her stinging putdowns of ineffectual husband George. He has no push, no drive, no ambition. He's neither head of the history department nor even daddy's successor-to-be; he can't do anything right. In comfy cardigan, George gives as good as he gets, constantly berating her for her alcoholism, chasing younger men, being a harridan. He never misses an opportunity to tease her about her age. Events get ugly fast when Martha invites the hunky new biology teacher and his mousy wife, Nick and Honey (Matt Hune and Teresa Zimmermann), for drinks after an already boozy faculty party.
Wheedling with innuendo and insults, George and Martha thrive on baiting each other. Airing dirty laundry and sexual secrets are like a tonic. Are the tales they tell about each other and their son away at college true? Fueled by a never-ending fountain of alcohol, they merrily lure the hapless outsiders into their particular circle of hell. These spiders devour everything in their path. Smug and self-important, Nick is the first to fall after Honey succumbs to too much brandy and has passed out on the bathroom floor. George doesn't object to Martha throwing herself at this prize specimen, in fact he encourages her. Martha's suspicious at this feigned disregard, which only spurs her killer instincts to fight harder. What sticky, deadly undercurrent in all these “games.” Like quicksand, everyone's pulled down into the muck.
Cleansing comes with dawn and one final “game” that George arranges. When finished, with Nick and Honey released to crawl scarred and scared into the morning light, the couple hold each other for the first time in the play. They're spent and bloodied, like athletes or gladiators, yet chastened and terribly uncertain. This is a different type of love for these epic battlers. Truth and illusion has collided with one big bang. They are now changed forever. Or “changed” as much as Albee allows. In a touching denouement, they are together, a couple. There is hope, Albee says, like the dawn's glimmer, for us all.
The roles of Martha and George are iconic. They're right up there with Hamlet, Medea, Mother Courage, Antigone, Oedipus. Their modern counterparts might be the Tyrones from O'Neill's masterpiece Long Day's Journey Into Night, battling personal demons while they envelop everyone else in their tsunami of bile. Lehl and Tobin-Lehl personify these desperately unfulfilled gorgons with incredible sharpness.
George, intelligent and sad, is the play's prime mover. When Martha changes the rules of the games they play, he's outraged with her betrayal, and he swings into overdrive, devising the only way out for both of them. Lehl has intelligence to spare, right under the surface. We can see him holding back, knowing just when to pounce, that steely glint in his eye, that expertly given delivery of a put-down quip. When he calls Martha “lover” or “angel” or “yum yum,” you can hear both the lost love in his tone and the desire to hurt. There are hidden reserves in him.
Martha is Albee's Earth Mother from Hell: blowsy, loud, desperate to be loved, and little girl lost. Tobin-Lehl is well-nigh perfection as she effortlessly pulls all these disparate elements together in a frighteningly accurate portrait. We don't ever want to meet her when drunk, let alone sober. Poor stolid Nick gets eaten alive by Albee's definitive ball-buster. But, like George, there's something much more substantial underneath. She opens up near the end of the play in a searing but quiet monologue. The biting humor is still there as she talks to daddy's framed picture, but there's a surprising softness and, yes, even vulnerability. She's careened out of control, her life's a mess, but her rock is still little Georgy-Porgy.
Into this snake pit come arrogant Nick and passive-aggressive Honey. They don't know what they're in for. Their backstory is revealed piece-meal in some of Albee's most exquisitely structural stage know-how. He layers this play in gasping surprises and reversals, always staying way ahead of us. In some ways, the audience becomes Nick and Honey, not knowing what or whom to believe. The more we know, the more ammunition for Martha and George, and the more we wait anxiously for what's to come.
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Hune, lean and fit, makes beautiful prey. He reveals his character's innate sleaziness in fits and starts, one scotch at a time. The ultimate opportunist, the '60s forerunner of hedge-fund manager, he can't leave the house or his chances of advancement may be ruined. His floppo sex encounter with Martha is that much icing on the cake for George, and elicits withering scorn from Martha. Shaded and delicately nuanced, Hune's performance is both heart-breakingly real and archetypal.
Zimmermann is another revelation. Tipsy when she arrives at 2 a.m., she gets drunker by the minute on glasses of brandy. Watch how subtle she is as her eyes unfocus, her hands go limp, and her mouth can't seem to close properly. Poor thing has our sympathy, a Christian thrown to the lions. Her widening awareness of Nick's smarmy attraction for her back when they were young is etched on her ever slackening face. Her illusions get shattered with stunning force. What will become of them is a deafening question left wisely unanswered by the playwright.
Albee's magnificent portrait of marriage – however awful and full of sickening regret – is his long night's journey into day. It's hard to take, but it's a gloriously theatrical full frontal picture. No excuses, he laments; no excuses, Stark Naked Theatre celebrates.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf continues through March 26 at Studio 101, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street. For more information, call 832-866-6514 or visit starknakedtheatre.com. $15-$29.