When outrage-stage author Edward Albee passed away in September, the theater world mourned with a collective gasp, as if his death from old age were just another violent trick designed to snap us out of complacency. The triple Pulitzer prize-winner aimed to make audiences so uncomfortable they would “run out of the theater — but come back to see the play again.” He succeeded most notably with his first full-length production, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The Pulitzer committee chose to grant no prize in 1963 rather than award it to Albee.
Virginia Woolf, wrapping up its run at Colonial Players this weekend, is a surreal stress-fest about a middle-aged couple of psychological sado-masochists at a quaint New England college who entangle a pair of unsuspecting newlyweds in their calamitous sport. The ensuing mental warfare and infidelity, stemming from ancient domestic skirmishes, is booby-trapped with antagonistic gibes, outrageous lies, professional sniping and personal sabotage. Like a horrific accident, it makes you cringe even as you brake to see it better.
It all starts one Sunday morning at two o’clock when Martha (Debbie Barber-Eaton), the college president’s feisty daughter, informs her weary husband George (Joe Mariano), a history professor, that she has invited the new faculty couple, Nick (Ron Giddings) and Honey (Sarah Wade), over for a post-party nightcap. George balks, but Martha rules, drunkenly and teetering with schizophrenic fervor between love and hate. The feeling is mutual, and George, less a victim than he appears, ultimately proves more acerbic and dangerous than even Martha could imagine, increasingly so as night lifts to morning amid broken and empty liquor bottles.
As campus royalty, Barber-Eaton is a superb braying siren with a magical hold on her subjects and surprising frailty that she drowns in gin. Mariano delights as the only man who can tolerate her, percolating with ironic menace like sunrise coffee laced with arsenic. Giddings is every inch the uptight opportunist with Ivy League breeding and athletic bearing. Wade is adorably vulnerable as his naïve wifey. So impressive is this foursome that they just may sweep this year’s WATCH awards for acting.
The only catch in casting, which would not be a big deal save for significant references in the script, is the unfortunate fact that the slim-hipped and therefore implicitly weaker of the two women plays Martha rather than Honey.
The set is homey and collegiate with costumes richly detailed and period appropriate. Sound and lighting effects are few and unnecessary, as the characters provide all the pyrotechnics. It’s quite remarkable to watch these people drink, an average of six stiff drinks each in the three and a half hours it takes for the action to unwind. Yes, you read that right: for by the time the sun rises, presumably at 5:30, the audience has endured this emotional roller-coaster in real time, and that is most unfortunate.
The script bills this as a three-hour production, already longer than most, yet Director Craig Allen Mummey chooses to draw out the dialog for dramatic effect at the expense of audience comfort. That trade-off many resented on the weeknight I resented.
Still, this is theater at its best. Come fresh, without the kids.
Director: Craig Allen Mummey. Stage managers: Bernadette Arvidson and Kevin Brennan. Set designer: Barbara Colburn. Sound: Ben Cornwell. Lights: Alex Brady. Costumes: Carrie Brady.
Playing thru Nov. 12, Th-Sa 8pm, Colonial Players, 108 East St. Annapolis, $20 with discounts, rsvp: 410-268-7373; thecolonialplayers.org.