'Virginia Woolf': The Marriage From Hell With A Heavenly Cast

A marriage marinated in bile: Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin as the corrosive couple at the heart of Edward Albee's
A marriage marinated in bile: Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin as the corrosive couple at the heart of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (By Carol Rosegg -- Kennedy Center)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 12, 2007

A rapturous daze is the condition you find yourself in after an evening with Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin and the magnificent grudge match they make of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Edward Albee's modern masterpiece gets the superb treatment it deserves in the revival that's at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater through the end of the month. Staged to stunning effect by Anthony Page and bolstered by the sterling supporting performances of David Furr and Kathleen Early, the production is that rare example of a long night's journey you only wish could go on longer.

Born on Broadway nearly two years ago, this "Woolf" eventually traveled to London and is being relaunched in the Eisenhower at the start of a national tour. Turner and Irwin have been with the production since its inception. Furr, an understudy on Broadway, and Early take over the roles of Nick and Honey played in New York by David Harbour and Mireille Enos. The four performances are so well balanced and acutely pitched, you would think the actors were carrying tuning forks.

As the play's snarling older couple -- vindictive George and predatory Martha -- the twitchy Irwin and husky-voiced Turner made for an intriguing pairing from the start. (Irwin won a Tony for his portrayal, but Turner's was equally accolade-worthy.) The many months they have spent onstage together have allowed them to seal the impression of a truly diabolical domestic bond -- a marriage marinated in bile.

This is, as a result, an even funnier, tarter, more poisonously evolved version of the play. Albee's zingers have never seemed more lethal. Turner's Martha has grown needier, fouler. She's also more callous -- in the way that someone with a penchant for sucking the air out of a room doesn't care who else's oxygen she's hoarding. Her boozy come-ons to Nick, a receptive young academic operator, are positively chilling.

"I am the earth mother," Turner crows, in a growl that sounds like bourbon and Camels. Then the voice grows deeper as Martha turns her contempt on the men in the room: "You're all flops," she says. Then deeper still, as she lapses into self-loathing: "I disgust me."

Irwin, for his part, takes castrated George to a new level of bottled-up spite. As lithe as Turner is earthy, Irwin portrays George with wariness honed on decades of sexual betrayal.

His eyes ceaselessly follow Turner around John Lee Beatty's dark, moody mock-up of a professor's living room as if he were her keeper. The gamesmanship between them -- and "Virginia Woolf" is nothing if not a contest -- is predicated on George and Martha's twisted intimacy, the jollies they get from drilling down to one another's raw nerves, from their uncanny ability to anticipate each other's next move.

The effect is nasty and hilarious, especially as they take turns ratcheting up the stakes in the storytelling at the center of their vengeful games, about their unseen son. "The apple of our three eyes -- Martha being a Cyclops," George says. The audience waits gleefully for Irwin's every withering line reading.

The play is most familiar in cinematic form, the 1966 movie starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. As Page's revival reveals, the humor onstage is more devastating. Set entirely in George and Martha's house in a fictional New England college town, "Virginia Woolf" takes place in the wee hours of the morning after a faculty party, when the couple has invited back to their home an ambitious young biology professor and his foolish wife.

The booze flows and the fangs come out. The play suggests that the most treacherous accouterment in American life is a wedding ring. Over the course of the evening, George, a milquetoast of a history professor, and Martha, unfulfilled daughter of the college president, will pick menacingly at the scabs of each other's insecurities: George's sense of failure; Martha's desperate neediness. The paradox is that they need each other, more potently than Nick and Honey, whose marriage is the more palpable sham.

Furr and Early are served up as delightful fodder for Irwin and Turner, but the play's not much fun if the younger couple is merely pathetic. On this score, the casting helps immeasurably. Furr brings an edge of hostility to insouciant Nick; he's both patsy and threat here, and you can practically see in Furr's portrayal the shifting calculations in how far he must go in seducing Martha.

Early deftly embodies Honey's girlish cluelessness, and the performance gets better as Honey gets drunker: When George cranks up some music, her Honey lets go in precisely the right way. Released from concern about Nick's expectations for her, she dances her own sad little reverie.

Page maneuvers the actors fleetly through the play's depths of ridicule, viciousness and despair. It feels as if it's here and gone in mere moments, moving us to that final glimpse of Albee's eternal combatants, seeking out each other in the shadows.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, by Edward Albee. Directed by Anthony Page. Set, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; sound, Mark Bennett and Michael Creason; fight director, Rick Sordelet. About three hours. Through Jan. 28 at the Kennedy Center. Call 202-467-4600 or visit

© 2007 The Washington Post Company