Don’t deceive yourself into thinking that you have seen Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” before, and that includes the lauded 1966 film version that starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (at their most vitriolic). Bringing stature to the Broadway season is Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company’s astonishingly fresh and fierce revival. It is an auspicious revival in that it opened on October 13, 2012, exactly 50 years to the day after the play premiered in 1962.
Though it has been only seven years since the last revival, a humdinger that starred Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner as the battling George and Martha (not to be confused with the more famous father of our country and wife, as an example of a good/solid marriage), this latest incarnation puts a decidedly new slant on them individually and on their relationship. It also provides a few more surprises when it comes to what we have come to expect from a couple who have no peers or competitors in all of American dramatic literature.
To be perfectly honest, the sheer relentlessness of George and Martha’s role/game playing have previously left me exhausted, but I think I’ve come around for a good reason. Miraculously there is a shift in how I was able to see these two provocateurs, indelibly cast in a new light by director Pam MacKinnon through the incredibly exciting and revelatory performances by Amy Morton and Tracy Letts.
Perhaps despite Albee’s allusion to the historical George as an advocate of truth, a quality that seems to have not been passed down to the current George, we, nevertheless, see a more aggressively manifest version of his truth when it comes to fueling (think liquor and lots of it) his and Martha’s spitefully and cruelly motivated marriage through one long and harrowing night.
Propelled by their self-destructive impulses, but profoundly energized by their vindictively interpolated psychological party games, namely “humiliate the host, get the guests, and hump the hostess,” George and Martha have fascinated and perplexed theatergoers since they first went at each other: Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill were the original Martha and George.
This stunningly reconsidered, but not reconstructed, revival, under MacKinnon’s guidance places the self-immolating/self-perpetuating agenda of both Martha and George into a more emotionally/psychologically complex configuration — whether or not it plays into or penetrates deeper (who really knows?) into Albee’s original conception.
This production will certainly be a revelatory one for those who have already experienced a more traditional interpretation and staging. Unencumbered by star casting except from its own ranks, the Steppenwolf cast is dynamite. Outstanding is Letts, whose numerous Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional theater acting credits include his memorable 2010 performance at McCarter in “American Buffalo.” The Pulitzer Prize winner for his play, “August: Osage County,” affords us another opportunity to see this multi-gifted talent embody the presumably thwarted college professor.
Morton, who received a Tony nomination for her performance in “August: Osage County” and served as director for Steppenwolf’s “American Buffalo” at McCarter in 2009, is sensational as the abrasive, humiliating wife. The adventurously vindictive tit-for-tat as played by Morton and Letts is like nothing you have ever seen before. For the first part of the play, Morton seems slightly restrained as her cool, booze-empowered put-down dance appear to be well-calculated to inflame and engage Letts, who proves to be not quite the belittled punching bag we’ve seen before.
Morton validates Martha’s agenda with an impassioned determination that is more subtly textured than I have seen before in the role. Martha’s baiting and ranting have always been riveting, but Morton makes them increasingly poignant. Martha doesn’t always have, or, indeed, expect to have the upper hand in this endurance test of wits and resentments. Letts gives us a George who appears more grounded and sturdily prepared for the divisive battling. This does not alter the battle lines that are drawn, but we can see in their confrontations more room for a truce than a defeat.
George and Martha may be compelled to continue their excoriating war of barbed insults for reasons that are partially explained. A large part of their nasty marriage is based on a let’s pretend game of having a child. But it is when Nick, a newly hired biology professor, and Honey, his odd (no other word for it) wife, get caught in their host’s web that George and Martha’s prescription for their pain becomes therapeutic. Their trap is carefully set with its aim to disarm and disengage Nick and Honey from any sense of emotional or intellectual security. Madison Dirks fits the bill perfectly as Nick, the ex-athlete whose confidence quickly proves no match for George’s more skillfully deployed attacks.
Carrie Coon is a hoot as Nick’s wife, Honey, whose intellectual deficiencies rise to the surface with each refill of brandy. The play’s dramatic cornerstone is the blatant manner in which the self-assured Nick and the slightly ditsy Honey are goaded and guided by two experts into unwittingly exposing and facing the corruptness of their own marriage/relationship.
Though our eyes don’t miss the number of times glasses of booze are re-filled, there is also time to appreciate Todd Rosenthal’s booze and books faculty house living room. Despite the play’s three-hour length and its two intermissions, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf,” is bound to send you out on a boozy high.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street, New York. Through Sunday, March 24. $67 to $132. 212-239-6200.