Friday, August 06, 2004

REV: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Review, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Directed by Jeff Scott
The Smith-Ritch Point Theatre, Elizabeth Huth Coates Pavilion, Ingram, Texas, August 2004

Who's Afraid? I Am, George . . .
tony gallucci

Edward Albee has been taken to task for many things over the course of his (now long) multi-Pulitzer career, but one thing he has not been hounded about is the sheer intense engagement one gets from being a part of his plays.

While the casual theatre-goer might balk at being “involved” in a play, Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf involves in another way -- audience as voyeur. There is ne'er a moment in this three-hour production in which the observer is not pruriently uncomfortable - just uncomfortable enough to not want to leave, to crave what happens next.

In that regard, The Point's current production of Woolf is superior to the film version that starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. In the film one could distantly watch without fear of being caught. In the stage version there are moments when you feel like shrinking behind a curtain as one character or another approaches the seating to deliver a monologue.

Jeff Scott is directing this piece as part of his graduate theatre program at Texas Tech University. He has picked a winner, albeit a difficult piece to “win” with, and has pulled off a grand staging with Point vets Roy Burney (as George), Holly Riedel (as Martha), and Ella Johnson (as Honey), all inhabiting their characters exceptionally well, aided by a superb performance by HCAF newcomer Caleb Straus (as Nick).

The play centers on the idiosyncratic relationship of Martha, the daughter of a university president, and her husband George, the not successful enough associate history professor at the same college. Both are alcoholic, somehow love each other despite being viciously condescending of each other's station, and enjoy intellectually tormenting all who stumble into their path.

This particular night, Nick, a new biology professor, and his wife Honey, perhaps as ditzy as her name might imply, join George and Martha for a post-party hobnob. Nick is ambitious, George is wary, Martha is ready for anything, and Honey just likes brandy. All of them want children, sorta, and, well that's part of the story . . .


Through three hours of mind games, the most intimate details of four lives are exposed and used as bludgeons, until they take a nasty turn. George and Martha must deal with a major turn in their lives - Nick and Honey are humiliated into retreat.

The cast works the piece as though it is an ensemble and no character takes a backseat to any other.

Burney takes his finest turn since . . . well, he's no had no dearth of powerful characters to portray - Macbeth, Lion in Winter, etc. His wide-ranging moods - from tempered, to attack-mode, to humiliated, to exhausted - perfectly follow the mood swings of the play. The conflict in George is easily seen in his reaction to the various demands of Martha. Often the words he spouts are not the thoughts he is trying to elucidate, just as should be the case. The whole evening is a game - What's My Lie. Burney carries this off so well it's almost a pleasure to watch though you wish all too often he'd stop. But perhaps that's the idea - to not like the wrong person. George/Roy is a pro. And the speed and inventiveness with which he wields his scalpel, makes the play all the more stunning for its metaphorical carnage.

Riedel also should take a bow for her best role since The Crucible. As Martha she is powerful in her dominance - “I wear the pants in this family because someone has too” - yet constantly vulnerable in her need for some warmth in her life. The conundrum is that she claims, convincingly, that George is the only person who has ever given her that; and yet her derision envelops him. At once stunningly dignified in her party dress, she changes into an outfit she thinks flatters her and Riedel uses it to every little advantage, from raising George's ire, to prodding the young Nick. I dare say she is completely convincing as the two-headed dragon Martha; best seen in the later scenes when her mushrooming lies begin to take on a melodramatic air as she is forced to invent on her drunken “feet” to keep up with the incessant prodding by George.

Straus is unknown to us here, but not lacking acting chops by any means. He's a theatre major at McMurry, and is the son of Fredericksburg theatre teacher Bob Straus (who most will remember from The Crucible at The Point). Straus is a fine discovery for us, as his Nick, the real villain of the play, is note perfect. As the young biology prof he masks his ambition well at the beginning, but he is not camouflaged well enough to dissuade his big-game hunting hosts. The transition from happy newcomer to “warned” suitor is drastic and disarming. It is not clear until the end of the play exactly what George and Martha are up to, but when the hammer falls, it's on Nick, and Straus slides quickly down the emotional slope from brash, cocky chromosome-fiddler to disenchanted also-ran. One might be concerned, but Caleb plays Nick's age well; it's a shock to find out how young Caleb really is.

In many ways, Johnson has the most difficult of the roles. Her Honey is relegated to a bystander in the conversation much of the time, and a great deal of what we eventually know of her comes from simply observing her oft-times silly reactions (“Oh, violence, violence”) to the situations (though she has a couple of outstanding emotional sequences). The real power of Johnson's portrayal is that she so effectively elicits our understanding with so little verbiage. She is ditzy all right, but she has a soul too. Of all the cast, Johnson makes the widest swing from near-sober to drunk and does so with exuberance. She makes it quite clear she's the lightweight drinker of the group, and her tipsy blurtings change the tenor of the play several times in the late going. Note especially the seemingly perfectly alert and cunning “forgetfulness” she displays at her most inebriated. Maybe she ain't so ditzy after all . . .

Scott has produced an exceptional piece of work with what may well be the most difficult play on the American stage. It may also be the most intense and demanding play on The Point's stage in many moons. When you leave you'll be absolutely drained, but it's not the three hour running time that does it - it's all that hiding behind the imaginary curtain as you peer into the deepest recesses of these folks' psyches. You'll not regret a minute of it. Would there be more productions like this on local stages.

In addition to director and cast, the play no doubt runs as smoothly as it does thanks to the efforts of Marie Cearley (stage manager), Zach Tiedemann (stage crew), Patrick Wade (lights and sound), and Brian Crabb (set construction). Crabb and Johnson also did scene design (perfectly über trashy) and Cearley and Riedel were responsible for costuming (Honey's outfit is a peach!). Kirk Rogers designed the lighting; James Harris the poster; and Teri Valentine did layout. Riedel is the show's producer.

The show runs Thursday to Saturday, August 19-21, and Friday and Saturday, August 27-28. Show time is 7:30 p.m. - three acts and two intermissions. Reservations are recommended. Don't miss this one.

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