By Daniel Skora
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is the cruelest, most relentlessly vitriolic play in the canon of modern American Theatre. Edward Albee’s play about an alcoholic academic, his equally alcoholic wife, and their two late night guests caused quite a stir when it opened in 1962. The language was raw, the tone frightening, the concept of a marriage existing in such a deplorable, hateful condition previously unheard of. The play went on to win a Tony for Best Play in 1963 and spawned a highly successful and much lauded film of a few years later. Performance Network Theatre opens its 2015/16 season with a commendable production that proves that the years have done little to diminish the play’s shock value.
George (John Seibert) is a professor of history at a prominent university. Over the years, he been emasculated by his wife Martha (Sandra Birch) and demoralized by his inability to rise in the academic structure. When Nick (Nick Yocum), the new biology instructor at the university, and his young wife Honey (Victoria Walters Gilbert) come calling in the wee hours of the morning following a faculty party, all of George’s frustrations explode in a frightening yet calculated attack on both his wife and the unsuspecting couple.
“Would you like a drink” soon becomes “Have another” and the liquor does its job of loosening everyone up. Nick may have been a light middle-weight boxing champ in his younger days, but George is a heavyweight when it comes to verbal sparring. After a while, Martha begins coming on to the young professor while taunting her husband for his failures. George strikes back by suggesting they play games like “hump the hostess” and “get the guests”. Honey, enjoying the euphoria of her intoxication, looks on bewilderingly. The expected arrival the next day of George and Martha’s grown son weaves in and out of the play like a loose thread, and the reality behind the anticipated son will culminate in a highly emotional ending. What George eventually accomplishes in the span of one protracted night is the exhaustingly complete destruction of the souls of not only his wife and two guests, but his own as well.
“Woolf” covers a lot of territory in this richly textured play, and much has been written about it. Albee’s dialogue crackles with venom, and at various times, skirts a wealth of topics, including sexual dysfunction and infertility, academic improprieties, and the decline of the traditional American family.
“Wo0lf” is generally referred to as a dark comedy. The implication here is that the play’s humor does not generally find expression with overt laughter, but rather is relegated to some cerebral lockbox where it languishes out of fear of infecting an otherwise normal mind. Can it be imagined that two human beings like George and Martha, married these many years and having once expressed their mutual love for one another, speak and act so cruelly not only to each other but to two unsuspecting victims who happen to enter their arena by accident? There’s not a whole lot that’s ha-ha funny about this play.
If you’d had been at PNT on opening night, you’d have thought the word “dark” had somehow gotten excised from the play’s description. The laughter that was coming from the audience came loud and often. Some of it may have been because of the nature of opening night audiences. Opening night crowds are generally more raucous than others, the seats filled with actors and theater types. They all want their fellow performers onstage to know they’re there not only to support them but that they’re well–enough informed to know where all the funny lines are. Another reason may have been the casting of John Seibert as George. His performance is splendid in its own way, but not in the traditional way that George is usually cast. Seibert’s onstage person has always exuded friendliness. He has a lilt in his step that’s carefree and full of youth, and a temperament that, even when he’s playing a character who’s somehow managed to screw up his life or the lives of others, he still comes off as someone you’d like to have for a neighbor. He’s everything that George is not.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is a masterwork of American Theatre. It deserves to be seen periodically not only because it’s drama at its finest, but because it serves as a reminder that somewhere along the corridor of life, there’s a door that’s labeled “Social Skills by George and Martha” that shouldn’t be opened. The play, directed by Suzi Regan, is performed in three acts and runs over two-and-a-half hours. Set design is by Jennifer Maiseloff, with lighting by Mary Cole and costuming by Amber Marissa Cook. The show runs through November 1st. Tickets are available by calling the theatre’s box office at 734-663-0681 or going online at www.pntheatre.org. Performance Network Theatre is located at 120 E. Huron St. on downtown Ann Arbor.