Edward Albee’s controversial Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a scathing portrait of heterosexual marriage and its illusory trappings, its relevance just as prominent today as when it debuted in 1962. Now, Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner star as the bickering, middle-aged couple George and Martha. George is a New England college history professor married to Martha, daughter of the college president and six years George’s senior. Throughout the course of the play, they exchange bitingly sarcastic and vicious verbal attacks in the wee hours of the morning while “entertaining” a younger couple from the college, often instigating attacks on the pair of unwitting visitors as well. The assaults exchanged throughout the play, largely induced by the never-ending flow of alcohol, ultimately expose each of the four individuals to the truths behind the illusions they accept within their marriages, as well as those they present to the world.
Anthony Page’s latest revival of the play premiered on Broadway in 2004 and moved to London’s West End in 2005. Bill Irwin earned a well deserved Tony for his role as the punching-bag husband who finally fights back, and Kathleen Turner earned a second Tony nomination for delivering those punches, and taking a few herself. Both Irwin and Turner are currently taking their marital troubles on a tour across the United States, and are joined by David Furr and Kathleen Early as Nick and Honey, the young couple reluctantly drawn into the war zone that is George and Martha’s living room.
After two years, you’d expect Turner and Irwin to be so wholly immersed in their roles that near perfection can be expected from every performance. Unfortunately, this review is based on a performance which did not feature Kathleen Turner but her standby, Deirdre Madigan. This casting change did in fact detract heavily from the experience of the play. It was clear from the very beginning just how long each actor has been playing his role.
Irwin, seasoned and solid in every gesture and line of dialogue was perfection as expected. Irwin creates a George that is at first hapless and pitiful, who begs to be sympathized with for putting up with his overbearing wife. As the character rises to Martha’s challenges, eventually becoming the stronger of the pair, Irwin never once loses the audience’s empathy, even when the character becomes physically violent.
Madigan, on the other hand, was recognizably new to the role of Martha, playing the role in a most over-the-top fashion, which at times toed the line of melodrama. Subtlety was lost on her as every gesture and bit of dialogue were expressed with a robust flourish. Irwin’s delivery was deadpan, yet conveyed every ounce of venom he felt for Martha, whereas it was easy to mistake Martha’s icy antagonizing remarks as simple witty banter. In comparison to Irwin’s delicacy, Madigan’s outlandish performance contrasted heavily with the gravitas of the play, emphasizing her unfamiliarity with the material.
In the end, the performance was satisfying for the first two acts, producing apprehensive laughter and a side of anxiety as to why these four characters would behave in such a barbaric manner. However, the final act left much to be desired from the Martha character, as it is she who must carry the weight of the play’s significance on her shoulders: She is the most tragic of the four characters, depending on illusion and façade the most. When George puts an end to her games, she cannot bare the impact of truth. Such profound acting is essential to these roles, and unfortunately the standby did not do the final scenes justice.
Many have derived contrasting meanings from the play: A woman exiting the theater claimed it is “nothing but a love story,” while others argue that it is a story of desires and fears. Edward Albee said of the play, “And of course, who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf means who’s afraid of the big bad wolf… who’s afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical, university intellectual joke.” Albee wrote the play to emphasize the illusions people create for themselves in both internal and external relationships, and the tension which arises from the breaking down of those illusions and exposure to cold, hard truth.