Monday, September 28, 2009

Compass’s Virginia Woolf: Good Production of Classic Black Comedy


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Nobody ever went to see Edward Albee’s dark, corrosive comedy-drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? expecting to be uplifted or to come away with a new respect for the beauty of the human spirit. It was an overnight success when it premiered on Broadway in 1962 — when it takes place — but the reputation of the play was sealed when Richard Watts, Jr. of the New York Post called it “the most shattering drama I have seen since O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Revisiting an acknowledged masterpiece that shocked audiences two generations ago is a risky move for Compass Theatre — sometimes such a revival merely leaves audience members shaking their heads and wondering, “They found that ‘shattering’ in 1962?” Fortunately for Compass, though, Virginia Woolf still packs a punch — and their production delivers it expertly.

For those who’ve never seen it, either on stage or film, and don’t know what it’s about — including the young woman at the September 26 preview who, when her dad told her it had been a movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, asked, “Who are they?” — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? takes place in the early morning of September 10, 1962 in a small cottage on the grounds of an unnamed college in New Carthage, a village in an equally unnamed New England state. Martha (Glynn Bedington), the daughter of the college’s president, and her husband, history professor George (Compass Theatre founder and executive director Dale Morris), have just returned home from a big party called by the president to welcome everybody to the new school year. Though it’s already past midnight and everyone involved has already tanked up on alcoholic potables, Martha has invited a newly hired biology professor, Nick (Tyler Joshua Herdklotz), and Nick’s wife Honey (Kelly Iverson), for a sort-of after-party.

As the four do even more heavy-duty drinking, they launch into a series of abusive psychological games summed up in the titles Albee gave to each of the play’s three acts: “Fun and Games,” “Walpurgisnacht” and “The Exorcism.” Most of the interactions between the characters revolve around sex, but much of the play also deals with the lies with which people surround themselves and the ways they use alcohol, sex and psychological abuse to keep from facing up to the truths about themselves. Part of the play’s enduring power comes from its weaknesses — particularly Albee’s scathing hatred of women. While other 20th Century Gay playwrights created compelling female characters — Noël Coward by having his straight women behave like Gay men and Tennessee Williams by idealizing them as fragile icons — Albee made his women either monstrous bitches like Martha or useless flotsam like Honey.

At the same time, Albee was too good a playwright to make Martha only a bitch. The key to making Virginia Woolf work is not only to capture the basic situation — Martha’s (and her father’s) social position, her open infidelities and her sharp, booze-honed tongue have totally emasculated George, who’s a barely competent wimp as both human and professor — but to communicate the pathos behind it. Done right, as it is here, Virginia Woolf’s rare periods of repose — the passing interludes in which the characters let down their defenses and talk instead of screaming — are its most memorable parts.

Albee’s agenda encompasses a good deal more than a portrait of a psychologically abusive marriage. He balances his plot so that both women have issues around pregnancy and reproduction; the “hysterical pregnancy” with which Honey tricked Nick into marrying her in the first place has a grim echo in the truth behind George and Martha’s unseen son. And he adds an odd fillip in a fantasy George lurches into when he finds out Nick is a biologist and not a math professor (as Martha told him earlier — though she’s right, in a way, since any scientist must have a good understanding of high-level math), George instantly leaps to the conclusion that “you people are rearranging my genes, so that everyone will be like everyone else” — and so pregnancy, a problem for both women in the piece, will no longer be necessary. This speech “reads” quite a bit differently now, in the age of in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, stem-cell research, the Human Genome Project and the promise of “designer babies,” than it no doubt did in 1962. Indeed, it seems so prescient I wondered if Albee had added it in a later revision of his play — but no, it’s in the original script.

Anyone coming to Virginia Woolf “live” after only having seen it in the film version — especially if, like me, you’ve only seen the film on TV, cable or home video — will be startled at how it comes over with an audience. What’s especially surprising is how funny it is; though the laugh lines have the sting of a scorpion’s tail, they’re there and they provoke a kind of I-can’t-believe-I’m-finding-this-amusing-but-I-am reaction and an accompanying nervous laughter. Also, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton played Martha and George with a kind of stylized, almost operatic intensity that Bedington and Morris don’t try to match — which, paradoxically, makes the characters far more believable as real people in Compass’s production.

Flaunting her sexuality in a skin-tight pantsuit she dons midway through the first act and keeps on for the rest, Bedington’s Martha is a riveting mixture of personal and sexual frustration that expresses itself in alcoholism and bitchery. Under the effective direction of Shana Wride, Bedington knows just how far to stick her claws out in each scene. Morris gives us a befuddled reading of George — he’s in over his head and, unlike Richard Burton’s version of George, he’s all too aware of it — that makes us feel sorry for him even when he’s provoked enough to take on Martha and beat her, or at least fight her to a draw, at her own game.

The two other actors are more problematic — though that’s at least partly Albee’s fault for underwriting the characters. Had he given Nick and Honey more steel, more weapons to fight back when George and Martha draw them in to their brutal games, Virginia Woolf would be an even better play than it is. Instead, they’re simply catalysts for the ultimate “exorcism” between George and Martha — and that makes them a challenge for the actors playing them. Though Herdklotz is listed in the program as a building contractor who “has been performing in the San Diego area for years,” he’s awfully young-looking on stage — more like 18 than the character’s stated age of 28 — and therefore he comes across as even more callow and naïve than Albee probably intended. Iverson is a striking actress with a strong resemblance to the young Audrey Hepburn, but she’s not well showcased in a role that basically requires her to get sick, throw up and have a nervous breakdown. (Another playwright might have made us admire the one character who can’t hold their liquor; not Albee.)

Director Wride keeps up the play’s energy level, has the characters in almost constant motion — thereby making them seem like lab rats trapped in the one room in which it all takes place — and evokes first-rate performances from her leads. Set designer and constructor Adam Lindsay frames the action in a simple but realistic space (Bruce Baer and Kevin Berry helped him build it). Lisa Burgess is credited with costume design but seems to have had a hand in the props as well — including an awesome console record player of the period she found by accident in a storage facility where it was about to be thrown away. (The sound of the records being played seems actually to come from this machine, scratches, distortion and all, rather than the theatre’s overall P.A. from which period jazz, particularly Miles Davis and John Coltrane, emerges between the acts.)

Besides the usual credits, the program features a separate list of “contributors” including choreographer Javier Velasco (obviously called in to do the famous seduction dance Martha does with Nick towards the end of act two), Joe Kocurek for “Latin” (he must have been Dale Morris’s diction coach for the scenes in which George reads aloud in Latin), Angelica Ynfante for “prop gun” (the toy that shoots out a cloth sign that reads “Bang!”) and others, including Bedington and her husband Paul, for some of the decorations. The main credits include Matt Warburton for sound design (though this isn’t a particularly challenging show in that department), Mitchell Simkovski for lighting design (most notable in the brightening of the light on the window, house right, as day breaks during the final act), Jamie Lloyd as assistant director, George Bailey as stage manager (he’s also a performer, especially in musicals, and let’s hope Compass gives him a chance to play onstage), and Keith Miller as co-producer with Wride and Compass.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? isn’t exactly the play that leaps to mind when one thinks of community theatre — though Compass has made something of a specialty of David Mamet, an author whose coarse language and intense emotions wouldn’t have been allowed on stage had not Albee blazed the trail (their next production, opening November 5, is Mamet’s Boston Marriage), and the skills they’ve cultivated in their excursions into Mametland also serve them well here. Be warned, though, that Virginia Woolf is a long play — long enough that they’re starting it at 7:30, a half-hour earlier than usual, and it still doesn’t let out until quarter to 11. Back in 1962, apparently, a “full-length play” meant just that — not an 80-minute one-act!

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plays through Saturday, October 24 at Compass Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest. Performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are available by phone at (619) 688-9210 or online at