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Under Your Skin

By James Yeara

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

By Edward Albee, directed by Eric Peterson

Oldcastle Theatre Company, Bennington, Vt., through June 25

Oldcastle Theatre Company’s set for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is genius. OTC presents Edward Albee’s 1962 masterpiece in the physically off-kilter living room (drinking room would be more accurate) of George (Bill Tatum) and Martha (Christine Decker), a middle-aged history professor and his older wife at “New Carthage College” in New England. The perfect mirror for the warped marriages that are viciously exposed over the next two hours and 40 minutes, Richard Howe’s set design is a series of missed angles, burnt sienna walls warped so that the corners never meet, the dark brown wainscoting seeming to bow under the pressure of the contorted walls. The gaps where the walls should join are exposed. Blackness hides behind them. The stage-left wall is warped upstage left, the stage-right wall is warped upstage right, and the upstage wall seems to stagger left.

The effect is dizzying, like drinking too much tequila. The double windows on the stage right wall are too large for the wall, as if all that occurs in the “drinking room” were being revealed to the world. A huge bookcase emphasizes the hyper-focus of an academic, the bar farther downstage left further emphasizing how out-of-kilter George’s and Martha’s lives are. David V. Grope’s lighting design highlights this brilliantly, creating stunted shadows of the actors. It’s as if the only source of illumination is directly above—the same type of lighting as over an autopsy table. There’s not a misstep in the stagecraft.

Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? creates an intimacy with the audience as the twisted battles between George and Martha ultimately expose the twisted hypocrisy of the new biology professor Nick (Shawn J. Davis) and his wife Honey (Paizhe Pressley) as the four drink and spew. As with Albee’s 1994 Pulitzer prize-winning Three Tall Women, it’s the whispers that draw an audience in, not just the showy shouts from the fighting couples; marriage is a wasteland from whose bourne no traveler escapes unscarred.

Given how Albee’s dialogue snakes its way into an audiences’ consciousness, affecting their balance, it isn’t a total surprise when one of the 40 people in attendance topples on the top step after the first intermission, landing near me, and needing my help to be righted. I watched the 1992 inaugural North American production of the aforementioned Three Tall Women at the Bearsville Theatre in Woodstock when the playwright himself, looking like a fey L.L.Bean model, stopped during intermission to sniff the stage carpet, pursuing the sort of realism for which his plays are noted.

So, the effect his plays have on an audience is nothing new, and the toppling woman soon carries on a George-and-Martha routine with her spouse that’s as riveting as anything on stage. Dressed in matching baby-blue summer slacks, shirt, and coat, the toppling woman gives a searing account of the performances and the play to her taciturn companion, who may have turned down his hearing aid. The onstage dialogue concerning the onstage games is less interesting than baby-blue toppling woman: “Are you enjoying this? . . . Very poor diction,” she says audibly, as Martha plays the original M.I.L.F. with Nick (only the “M” stands for “monster”) as George exits and the flats upstage quiver, betraying the realism so painstakingly created. “I’m sorry his diction is so poor,” baby-blue toppling woman says. “The ingénues are acceptable, but they can’t put the whole play on her shoulders. She’s very good. It was difficult for Oldcastle to get the rights. Albee doesn’t want his play battered around the regional theaters.”

George’s battle with Martha takes another intermission—after another hour—and baby-blue toppling woman continues her asides. “Hells bells, I remember when he was writing the damn thing,” she tells impeccably overdressed visiting woman. “I use to make him his favorite dinner: leg of lamb. He’d play Bach on the piano. He was a dear sweet person.”

“Truth or illusion: You don’t know the difference, George,” Martha says when Act 3 continues. “We all peel labels,” George says, his diction improving. “Jesus Christ, I think I understand this,” Nick says of George’s improving diction. George sings, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf,” to the tune of “Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf,” as the play’s penultimate line, and Martha gets the last word: “I am, George. I am.”

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