Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Albee's play is set in a fictitious college town in the mid-1960s. It's 2 a.m. and George and Martha have just returned home from a new faculty reception held at the house of Martha's father, the president of the college, and Martha has invited a younger couple they met at the party over for a nightcap. As the plot plays out mostly in real time, and the living room clock's hands move toward 6 a.m. as the sun begins to rise, we learn that George is a professor in the history department and Martha is a long suffering faculty wife who has never been truly happy with her life or her husband's lack of success. The young couple, Nick, a new biology professor, and his mousy wife Honey, have issues of their own and prove to be both the guests and the victims for George and Martha's war of words and party games where the rules and stakes are constantly changing. As accusations fly, and the numerous liquor bottles empty, the demons, truths, and regrets of the past surface and peek through the cracks of these incredibly strong yet ultimately fearful and insecure individuals.
Albee's dialogue is excellent in displaying the marital discord and the raw nature of these defeated people. His ability to portray the games couples play and the fantasies and illusions they create in order to survive the disillusionments and disappointments in their lives and the shortcomings of their stormy, self-destructive, love-hate relationships is dramatic, riveting and, most importantly, incredibly real.
The small Space 55 stage puts you just a few feet away from the action in a theatrical setting that is unlike any other I've seen for productions of this play. It adds an intimacy and urgency to the dialogue and actions, as if you are a silent witness for George and Martha's parlor games. Shari Watts and Duane Daniels are excellent in displaying the raw emotions of their characters, with Watts sensational as the bickering, boisterous and flirty Martha and Duane equally adept as her foil, the surefooted, constantly harried, disheveled George. Together they form a superb partnership that is full of a vulgar taunting and wild self-indulgence which adds a heightened sense of realism to their stormy, turbulent and volatile relationship. These are superb performances with realistic and expressive facial gestures and appropriate body language, and there is always, underneath, the sense of neediness these two have for each other, especially in the heartbreaking ending once the deep dark truths have been revealed.
Megan Holcomb and Paul Kolecki are very good as the polite and somewhat uncomfortable guests Honey and Nick, with Holcomb's high-pitched laugh, expressive eyes and refined stage presence adding a nice sense of youthful realism and a clear dependency on her husband in her portrayal of the naïve Honey. Kolecki does well as the chummy, young, but nowhere near naïve Nick, who doesn't shy away from being pulled into the action, even when Martha's flirting ratchets up the heat. When the tables turn in the third act, and Honey and Nick find their relationship woes at the center of the discussion, Holcomb and Kolecki rise to the occasion as they expertly display this young couple's reactions, fears and insecurities when they find themselves on the defensive.
Director Carolyn McBurney does exceptional work in staging the action, with Watts and Daniels roaming the smart, simple, yet highly effective living room set in a natural way as if they are two wild beasts let out of their cages and ready to brawl. She ensures every moment resonates, whether explosive or introspective, and the ending packs a wallop in her staging that pinpoints the final moment to a single small spot that is rich, intense and incredibly effective. Kim Porter's costumes and Brian Flesher's hair and make-up designs are period perfect styles.
While Albee's play is less shocking today, most likely due to the advent of reality TV and our knowledge and exposure to so many couples like George and Martha, his three-hour study of the late night, booze-soaked party with two sparring couples at different phases in their married lives still makes for a searing expose. Space 55's production, with intense performances from Watts and Daniels, makes for an exhausting and emotionally draining yet completely enthralling theatrical experience.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs through March 5, 2017, at Space 55, 636 E Pierce St, Phoenix, AZ 85004. Tickets and information can be found at Space55.org.
Written by Edward Albee