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A Heavy-Hearted Romp

Veteran HRDC actors tackle ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

By Juli Min, Contributing Writer

Daniel J. Wilner ’07 would like to invite you into the newly furnished living room formerly known as the Loeb Ex.

For the next two weeks, Wilner—the director of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s (HRDC) production of two-time Pulitzer winner Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”—has transformed the Loeb Experimental Theatre into a sitting-room that will serve as the setting for the play. Produced by Emily A. Cregg ’09, “Who’s Afraid?” will run through May 5.

Large sofas and lounge chairs have replaced the normal audience seating of the theatre, and its normally dull, black walls have become like the inner walls of a house—complete with a large bay window. A layer of hardwood flooring completely covers the ground.

The effect is that members of the audience literally walk into the living room of George and Martha, one of the two couples around whom “Who’s Afraid?” revolves. Set in a university town, the intense drama centers on a late-night meeting between two professors and their wives: the bitter, aging George and Martha (played by Simon N. Nicholas ’07 and Chelsey J. Forbess ’07, respectively) and the younger, more hopeful Nick (Jack E. Fishburn ’08) and Honey (Elyssa Jakim ’10).

As the plot unravels, so does the twisted and at times violent relationship between hosts George and Martha. Nick and Honey stay well into the night, quickly lured into their volatile, yet fascinating world.

Wilner and set designer Todd Weekly hope to make the audience part of the experience by physically integrating them into the action, thereby transforming them from silent pieces of the set’s backdrop into actual houseguests.

“Though [the audience members] begin as spectators, they become a complicit aspect of the complicated and exciting games,” says Wilner. “It’s a bit intimate and a bit different, given there isn’t the same boundary between the actors and the audience. And that way the audience will have more power.”

The audience’s physical closeness to the action only increases their psychological involvement in the show. “[The play is] a very dark, entangled, polluted love story that helps to remind us...that the closer we get to people, the easier it is to get hurt and to be hurt by each other, which is scary, but at the same time very profound,” Wilner says.

Wilner understands that the emotional depth of “Who’s Afraid?” also presents unique challenges for him and the actors. Wilner is a seasoned actor in HRDC productions, but has never directed a full-length play at Harvard before.

“I’m hoping there was something foolhardy about doing this play, but that it works out in the end,” he says.

Fortunately, Wilner’s personal approach to theater is a laid-back one.

“It’s thinking about theater as learning and discovery,” he says. “The process is more valuable than the end product.”

Forbess, who plays the charged role of Martha, echoes Wilner’s appreciation of the play’s rigor.

“This is by far the meatiest acting role I’ve ever had and probably ever will have,” she says.

Because “Who’s Afraid?” has only four parts, each actor plays a vital role throughout the show. Despite any qualms they may have about doing the play justice, one sentiment is overwhelmingly prevalent among the cast members: a sense of awe at the chance to be a part of this unique endeavour.

Nicholas says vehemently, “This is the best theater experience I’ve ever had.”

As Wilner describes a particularly moving and well-acted scene he saw in a recent rehearsal, he expresses a similar appreciation for the collective accomplishment of the cast and crew in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

“This is probably how a parent must feel when a child becomes his own person and starts to amaze his parents,” Wilner says. “They did it better than I would ever have directed it.”

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