Every time you turn around these days, there is some amazing piece of theater being made in the Triangle. This time, it is Edward Albee's brilliant, excoriating 1962 play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, presented by Party Girl! Productions at Durham's Common Ground Theatre and directed by Tom Marriott. A nearly flawless preview preceded the three-weekend run that begins June 26th and continues through July 12th (see our calendar for details).
It may be true that the smartest people play the meanest games with each other. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? certainly makes a case for that, and the play's George and Martha are contenders for the world title in marital battling. Performed here by Mark Jeffrey Miller and Nicole Farmer, George and Martha demonstrate just how vicious people can become when the loving cup is polluted with the toxic additives of failed ambition and thwarted desire. The play is studded with boxing references, and George and Martha deliver verbal body blows and neck-snapping roundhouse punches until they collapse together on the ropes of their shared history
At this stage of their long struggle together, their own blood is not enough: they need an audience, and some fresh victims — Nick and Honey, newcomers to the college where George teaches and where Martha's father is president. Nick, played by Ryan Brock (in a performance that recalls the young Brad Pitt's in Thelma and Louise), is an apparently wholesome young biology professor whose surface is expertly peeled by George's merciless word-scalpel and a fifth of bourbon. (The whole play swims in booze.) Nick's sweet ditzy little wife, the brandy-swilling Honey, fares no better. Honey is a tough role — it takes a smart actress to look that dumb — and Beth Popelka is marvelous in it. Director Tom Marriott has done a great job at establishing the crucial balance between the two couples. Brock and Popelka supply the grounding to keep Miller and Farmer's electrical storm of a performance from blowing the walls out of the building.
From the minute she comes onstage, Nicole Farmer unleashes her force in an unrestrainedly physical characterization of the scathing, scornful Martha. Although she appears to start off giving everything, running wide open, she keeps on coming up with more as the story become ever-more harrowing. My one quibble with the production is Mark Jeffrey Miller's initial hyperactivity in the first (of three) acts — it might be more effective if he saved some of that, and revealed himself more slowly — but he too seems to draw from a bottomless well as the story moves toward its devastating conclusion. These will be the performances to top when it comes time for the year's best-in-theater lists.
Farmer and Miller knocking each other's scabs off make one remember how shocking the film version was when it first came out in 1966. Even with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the lead roles, many theaters refused to show the movie. Today, as inured as we are to portrayals of alcoholism and violence, and as habituated as we are to open discussion of sex, some of us still might find the play as shocking for its knowledgeable intelligence and its incisive language (blessedly, it was written before words such as "co-dependence" and "dysfunctional" fell from every lip) as for its emotional battering. Although it is set firmly in the early 1960s, the play has aged very well. You do have to remember that the war that's mentioned is World War II, but the play's references to the threatening promises of biology — genetic manipulation, test tube babies — that have come to pass have not diminished the story's power. If anything, our Brave New World makes Martha and Honey's struggles with fertility seem even more pathetic. And we know that the practice of drinking oneself through a miasma of misery has not faded into history.
In addition to the excellent performances and the well-paced direction that makes the three-hour play seem just long enough, this show is greatly enhanced by its unusually high production values. It takes place in a very-well-designed set by Dorrie Casey and Jeff Alguire, which reinforces the boxing metaphor. The set, along with Steve Tell's lighting, Tom Guild's sound design, and Nicole Farmer's costuming, help the present fall away and place us ringside at the epic fight. As always at Common Ground, the audience is practically on the stage; and this intimate setting makes the action even more explosive. George and Martha go 10 rounds, but it is the audience that's the winner in this knockout performance.
Note: There is no late seating. Reservations are highly recommended.
Party Girl! Productions presents Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Thursday-Saturday, June 26-28, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, June 29, at 2 p.m.; Wednesday-Thursday, July 2-3, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, July 5, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, July 6, at 2 p.m.; and Wednesday-Saturday, July 9-12, at 8 p.m. at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham. $12 Wednesday-Thursday and $16 Friday-Sunday. 919/240-5398. Party Girl! Productions: http://www.markjeffreymiller.net/Virginia_Woolf.html [inactive 7/08]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=9341. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061184/.