Peter Marks reviews ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ at Arena Stage

The rapture of utter depletion is what you feel these days at Arena Stage, courtesy of the toxic swamp otherwise known as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Happily exhausted — the kind of post-workout fatigue that sends endorphins coursing through your system — is how you leave the theater after the marathon session with the brutal partnership of Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, playing George and Martha, antagonists joined in unholy matrimony.

The war between George and Martha has rarely seemed such a fair fight as it does in this sterling production, which comes to Arena’s Kreeger Theater from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre under Pam MacKinnon’s secure direction. The eternally stewing Letts and brashly assertive Morton prove to be exceedingly well matched. Together they project all the bile, resilience and love — yes, love — that is needed to fully equip these warriors for the vituperative, symbiotic quagmire in which George and Martha forever wallow.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” launches Arena’s two-month-long festival of Edward Albee’s work, and naturally, a vigorous “Virginia Woolf” — Albee’s best-known play — gets things off to a delectable start. Arena has embarked on a serious effort to weave into its programming intriguing work from other companies around the city and the nation; Steppenwolf, birthplace of so much first-rate theater, was a smart place to look.

Its meticulously plotted-out “Virginia Woolf” paves a delightfully scathing path into Albee’s world of figurative daggers and demons; the play just may be the sharpest-witted ever purged from the psyche of an American writer. The devastating impact here is magnified by the actors playing the evening’s victims, the characters targeted by George and Martha in their vicious game of “get the guests.” As Nick and Honey, the young academic couple drawn into George and Martha’s manipulative death-grip, Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon both firmly hold their own.

Coon may be a level above; her Honey feels definitive, an ideal embodiment of this wallflower who bumps into marriage with a handsome go-getter via a hysterical pregnancy. As she lapses into a brandy-fueled stupor on a night of bottomless cocktails, Coon’s Honey sinks deeper into cluelessness and distress. The actress is effortlessly convincing. The blurrier she becomes, the clearer we see that she and Nick are trapped in a union far less honest than their hosts’.

Alcohol, by contrast, seems to sharpen the instincts of this George and Martha; no matter how many bottles they drain, Letts and Morton never appear to get even a tiny bit tipsy. As a stimulant, it seems, nothing can top vengeance.

Nick and Honey appear late one night at the doorstep of George and Martha, who are, respectively, a history professor of no more than middling achievement and the daughter of the university’s domineering president. Their marriage is beyond tempestuous; it’s a salted wound of disappointment and resentment. On this particular night of drinking — you get the sense it’s one in an ongoing series — the recrimination that ensues seems to redefine the standard for disastrous social events.

Or maybe, it’s the best darn party they’ve ever thrown. George and Martha wind themselves up in round after round of poisonous one-upmanship (are they just addicted to pain?) and then, smelling the fear on their guests, they turn their artillery on Nick and Honey until the unwitting couple is cruelly exposed to the sham of their own situation.

Told in three acts, the play is long, but it’s the opposite of a long sit. The hilarious assault of Albee’s quicksilver barbs makes sure of that.

“Virginia Woolf” becomes a problem only if the actors think it’s a shouting match. Elizabeth Taylor was misguidedly given an Oscar for turning Martha into a scenery-chewing harridan in the film version. Morton, dynamite in the Broadway transfer of Steppenwolf’s “August: Osage County” — written by none other than Letts — never commits that error.

Her lithe, carnivorous Martha may say monstrous things, but she’s more wounded bird of prey than monster, a complicated woman conscious of her own great hungers and flaws. If George is guilty of any crime, she confides at one point, it’s being devoted: He’s made “the insulting mistake of loving me,” she says, “and must be punished for it.” That perverse logic makes sense in Morton’s well-constructed portrayal, which rewardingly reveals that Martha seems to retain just as powerful a need for him.

Evidence of the embers of old feelings still smoldering is reflected in Letts’s hypersensitive George, who prowls the stage with clenched jaw and worried glances over his shoulder, ready for the next blow; it’s a messy marriage, but not a dead one, and this George has real power over it. Letts delivers Albee’s priceless ripostes with a crispness that conveys both an actor’s strength and a writer’s appreciation for the brilliance of a script. “In my mind, Martha, you are buried in cement, right up to your neck,” Letts’s George says. “No — right up to your nose. That’s much quieter.” (It seems no accident that in “August’s” scalding exchanges one sometimes hears echoes of Albee.)

Set designer Todd Rosenthal conjures George and Martha’s home as the sort of substantial manse with carved-wood trimming that you find in any old-line New England college town; amusingly, he has stacked books everywhere, even in the non-working fireplace. And Nan Cibula-Jenkins’s costumes, from George’s stuffy cardigan to Honey’s dowdy green ensemble, convey the style choices in a cerebral environment that’s mostly immune to fashion. (Only the exhibitionist Martha wears clothes for their effect.)

The production’s energy does flag from time to time, but these lulls are fleeting and only occur when Letts or Morton is absent from the stage. At every moment of onstage contact between them, this “Virginia Woolf” generates friction in megawatts.

marksp@washpost.com

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

by Edward Albee. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. Lighting, Allen Lee Hughes; sound, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; fight choreographer, Nick Sandys. About 3 hours 10 minutes. Through April 10 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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