AS A RULE, Edward Albee's plays should be protected from the efforts of well-meaning regional theaters. Relying upon sensitive emotional portrayals for their impact they too often fall prey to overblown actors who careen their way mindlessly through an evening of moral reproach and abuse. Even the most inveterate lover of psycho drama will find himself wishing that someone would simply draw a gun and cut short the agony. If Albee were there he would do it himself.
However, the Magus Theater Production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a shining exception to this rule. Director Alan W. Mianulli has taken full advantage of the talents of his cast and crew to create a living production that completely avoids stereotype. Mianulli has refused to allow his production to wallow in the swamp of bitter recrimination and contempt. And although feelings of bitterness just out unobscured. Mianulli has injected a measure of compassion to smooth the jagged edges.
The action takes place late one night after a party in a small New England college town. Martha (Karen Shallo) and her husband George (Pirie MacDonald), return to their home accompanied by a newly married, recently arrived couple, Nick (Ralph Redpath) and his wife Honey (Joy Bond). In the ill-defined hours of early morning, the four play out a series of nightmarish games of confrontation. The cob web illusions that cling to the consciousness are torn away to reveal ugly truths long hidden.
As the hours pass, the liquor flows and logic becomes tangled, blurred. Word games, begun playfully, unobtrusively evolve into finely honed knives with which Albee eviscerates his characters. He peels away mask after mask and reveals deception after deception. Each character confronts a devastating reality, never before admitted or accepted; and each in his own way copes, reassembling the pieces of his life as Albee implies we all do.
Martha is the stongest character in the play and Shallo handles the part admirably. Often the role is tackled by full-figured actresses with talent less than proportional to their physical attributes. Happily, Shallo does not fit that mold. Rather than pigeon-hole Martha as an aging liquor-ridden seductress, Shallo adds depth to the character by emphasizing her sense of humor and her love of laughter. Martha would like to be happy, but she seems unable. It is this that makes her pathetic rather than ridiculous.
MacDonald as George is calmly assertive, his anger and pain masked behind a cool sarcasm. MacDonald's acting is consistent in the first two acts. In the third act, however, he adds fire to his performance as he stalks Martha with the deadly determination of a jungle cat, and his words slam home with the impact of a triphammer.
Bond gives a mind-gripping performance, handling Honey's emotional transitions with breath-taking ease. Her performance is the most compelling in the show. From the giddy drunken beginnings when it appears that the peroxided Honey has a mind-wrenching hysteria of the third act, Bond uses her body and voice to convey an infinite variety of shaded feelings. At times, when the sheer terro of reality rushes in on her, Bond's performance is almost too painful to watch. When Honey rushes off stage, sickened by alcohol and unable to endure the destructive games, our revulsion is almost as strong as hers. The one unfortunate aspect of Bond's performance is that she spends much of the last half of the play off-stage.
REDPATH USES his G.I. Joe good looks to their best advantage in his portrayal of Nick. He struts about the stage, creating a perfect image of the promising young professor. His behavior toward his wife is unimpeachable. And yet there is something vaguely wrong with Nick: a softness in his manner, a feminine note to his giggle, his smugly self-righteous defense of modern science. Redpath fully exploits these disturbing qualities.
Like MacDonald, Redpath blossoms in several key scenes, especially during his attack on George, which possesses a laser beam intensity.
Michael Anania's sets are worthy of special notice. He has knitted together stray ends of words and ideas into a tapestry of visual suggestion. Amid the dusty books and knick knacks in George's study sits a small globe--the kind found in grade school classrooms. Implied in this image is the insignificance of the world outside; the world of action and geography has faded into George's own world of private conflicts and uncertain intellectualism.
The dimly lit fuschia blooms outside the window stand in stark contrast not only to the grays and blues of the living room, but to the gray-blue lives of the characters themselves. The light drifting in through the leaded glass produces a criss-crossed pattern of shadows across the set, creating the appropriate illusion of a cell.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a theatrical time bomb. Each verbal exchange, each lingering glance brings us closer to the shattering explosion of dreams and deceptions that Albee seems to think constitute our only reality. As Martha tells her husband, "Truth and illusion, George; you don't know the difference."