Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? isn’t about Virginia Woolf. It’s about coming to terms with reality and doing away with illusions. And that’s what Steppenwolf’s production seems to be: entirely real, not an illusion. In fact, it doesn’t even feel like a play. It feels like you’ve walked into the setting and the story and you’re living in it, and this is thanks to Steppenwolf’s shockingly realistic set and impeccable acting.
Virginia Woolf? tells the story of an older academic, George (Tracy Letts), and his wife Martha (Amy Morton), the daughter of the university’s president. The couple welcomes a new professor, Nick (Madison Dirks), and his wife, Honey (Carrie Coon), to the university with drinks in their home after a faculty party, and the evening slowly spirals out of control as secrets are revealed about both relationships and the people in them. As the audience watches, the lives of four very real people unfold.
Ultimately, the cast brings Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to life. They make it look like magic. Amy Morton is perfect as the bossy, sometimes obnoxious and inappropriate (but actually disappointed and vulnerable) Martha. Tracy Letts does well playing the obedient, tired, and old academic, but his moments of anger seem forced. Though Honey doesn’t have too large a role, Carrie Coon is very good at being drunk and crying. Madison Dirks, although physically not always convincing as a young, athletic, and up-and-coming professor, is impeccable acting-wise. For more than three hours, including two intermissions, the entire cast is perfect with every line, every cue, and every emotion. You have to wonder if they’re even acting.
The stage adds to the incredible sense of realism. It looks just like the home of an old professor—cluttered, bookshelves crammed full of books, and tottering piles of tomes scattered all over the place. There are rugs, old couches, and magazines. A cart of drinks stands in a corner for those long nights when he’s writing a difficult paper, or more likely, for letting him forget his dysfunctional relationship with his wife. Steppenwolf even took the effort to construct a near-house on stage. There are individual rooms, doorways that lead to corridors, and even staircases that might just lead somewhere.
And the moment the actors walk onto this set, it’s as if the audience is privy to every aspect of their lives. The love the couples secretly feel for each other even as they shout insults, the regret and disappointment, George’s fear of the power and success of the younger science professor—all come to the fore. Steppenwolf takes the idea behind Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seriously. Reality is what they strive for, and the notion of any sort of illusion inherent in theater is done away with.