Kathleen Turner's Painstaking Turn In 'Virginia Woolf'

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 27, 2006

When Kathleen Turner observes dryly that playwright Edward Albee "owes me, like, seven joints," the star of stage and screen is not referring to an illegal substance.

She means that in preparation for playing Martha in the ecstatically reviewed new production of Albee's 1962 classic, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," Turner had several arthritis-damaged joints in her feet removed. And a knee replaced.

"I'm looking forward to doing Martha pain-free," Turner says, alluding to the five-city tour on which she's set to embark with Bill Irwin, her "Woolf" co-star on Broadway and in London's West End. The tour launches at the Kennedy Center Jan. 4-28. (Joining it as Nick and Honey, the young couple caught up in George and Martha's boozy verbal slugfest are David Furr, who understudied Nick in New York, and newcomer Kathleen Early.)

Turner says she used her proven knack for comedy to lobby Albee to let her play Martha: "I said I don't think the play is appreciated for how funny, how witty it is . . . differentiated from that awful movie of just two drunks screaming at each other." That would be the 1966 film version with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Turner persuaded Albee to set up a reading of the play so she could demonstrate her take on Martha and get ideas about casting other actors. That's how Irwin's name came up, she says. He was best known as an inspired clown in such stage shows as "Largely New York" and "Fool Moon" and only recently as an actor with gravitas -- Irwin won a Tony for his George.

Irwin had replaced Bill Pullman in Albee's "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" the previous year, Turner says, "so he'd obviously proven his chops onstage that way, and I just thought, that's it . . . because, God knows, he has the piercing intelligence that George has to have, and he's got all the comedic qualities, the brilliant timing and the shadings."

Turner had wanted to play Martha since she first read "Woolf" three decades ago -- but not until she was closer to 50. (Taylor was in her mid-30s when the film version was made.) "I was just so attracted to her power and her recklessness and the danger that she represents. I thought 50, because the character should be really past childbearing age for it to be really poignant," the 52-year-old Turner says.

Martha is "really desperate to shake things up. She feels so trapped and so useless. This takes place in '62 and really, she was a woman of great intelligence, great energy, of great ambition, and if it were now, she would be the head of a university," Turner says. Instead, "she has no job in her life and she sits around this empty house and drinks and creates a mess."

The actress has had her own troubles with alcohol, which she overused partly to dull the pain of arthritis. "I think a lot of the self-medicating aspects seemed completely valid to me," she says of her reading of Martha. "I'm not saying that I might not have gotten there without my own experience, but I know I'm using it."

Just as she traces Martha's emotional arc, Turner says she also plots the character's arc of inebriation. It "reaches its height at the end of the second act, and then the third act is probably the closest to sober that you see her, which is a wonderful chance to reveal her," Turner says. That is when, Backstage suggests, Martha and Albee break the audience's heart.

"With my help," notes the actress, firmly.

The Bard Takes D.C.

For a good while, Michael Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center, and Michael Kahn, the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, were stumped about how to launch the Shakespeare in Washington festival, which Kaiser conceived and Kahn is curating. The celebration of the Bard in theater, opera, dance, film and inch-high Ninja figures (yup) will run January through June and involve not only Kaiser's and Kahn's fiefdoms but also many smaller troupes. (Visit http://www.shakespeareinwashington.org.)

Kahn says he and Kaiser knew they wanted to bookend the festival with free events. It will close with his company's production of "Love's Labor's Lost" at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre.

And it will open with a free staged reading of "Twelfth Night" on Jan. 6 at 6 p.m. in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Kaiser says Garth Ross, who runs the free daily Millennium Stage performances, gave him the idea when he remarked that the evening of Jan. 6 marks the end of the so-called Twelfth Night of Christmas, begun at sundown on the 5th.

"All of a sudden, within four seconds, we had the opening idea," Kaiser says: Do "Twelfth Night" on Twelfth Night.

Kahn will direct a big assemblage of actors, including former Shakespeare Theatre regular Franchelle Stewart Dorn, current company members David Sabin and Floyd King, Jennifer Dundas (who played Laura in the Kennedy Center's "Glass Menagerie") as Viola, Veanne Cox (who just starred in "The Beaux' Stratagem" at the Shakespeare) as Olivia, Bronson Pinchot as Malvolio and Washington stage names Howard Shalwitz, Will Gartshore, Brian Hemmingsen and Scott McCormick.

Kahn says he hopes the event will light a festival fire under audiences. "I just hope they'll laugh and have a good time and see the community is celebrating a festival that is historic . . . bringing together all the arts in Washington."

"What has been astonishing is the number of arts organizations that have wanted to participate" in the festival, Kaiser says. Each group will approach its Shakespeare project within its own aesthetic and its own budget, a relatively unstructured setup that has "made it so much easier to assure the world that [the festival] is going to happen," he explains.

The Shakespeare plays next month are Folger Theatre's "King Lear" (Jan. 11-Feb. 18) performed by the Classical Theatre of Harlem, Synetic's wordless "Macbeth" (Jan. 11-Feb. 25), Kahn's "Richard III" (Jan. 16-March 18) at the Shakespeare, Keegan Theatre's "The Tempest" (Jan. 18-Feb. 17) and Rorschach's "Rough Magic" (Jan. 27-Feb. 25), a modern riff on "The Tempest" by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.

Follow Spot

ยท The musical wing of the Shakespeare in Washington festival begins at 8 p.m. Jan. 5 and 6 at Washington National Cathedral, when the Folger Consort performs music of Shakespeare's time in "The Elizabethan Muse: Shakespeare, Byrd & Dowland." Ticket prices start at $28. Visit http://www.folger.edu or call 202-544-7077.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company