Written by Edward Albee
Directed by James MacDonald
Playing at The Citadel’s Shoctor Theatre January 23rd to February 13th
Fifty years ago, one of Western Canada’s great playhouses burst boldly onto the scene with Edward Albee’s shockingly hilarious, drunkenly disastrous new play. Now, in this very special anniversary year, The Citadel pays tribute to its brave roots by returning to this award-winning four-hander, which nowadays is no less shocking, hilarious, and certainly no less drunken.
This classy nod to The Citadel’s early days allows us to reflect on the rich variety of theatre it has offered Alberta audiences over half a century. It has been no mean feat for a large professional playhouse to provide “something for everyone” in a theatre culture that demands everything from Musical Theatre to well-loved Christmas classics to ground-breaking Canadian drama to Epic Shakespeare; and all for an affordable ticket price! It is no wonder that this celebration year will also mark Bob Baker’s 15th and final year as artistic director of the great orange greenhouse which he has so carefully tended and encouraged to grow into a flourishing centre for the arts.
This production of “Who’s Afraid” will surely ring with nostalgia for many of The Citadel’s loyal audiences, as well as the artists who have enjoyed healthy careers there, but it is not just a sentimental choice. This brilliantly insightful and bewildering domestic drama (pseudo-comedy) is always a treat for everyone as Albee’s characters come to wild and vivid life late at night in a 1960’s living room.
George and Martha are middle-aged, married, and have been for a long time. George works as a history professor at the University. Martha’s father is the Head of that University. In endeavouring to live up to the expectations of Daddy and the College, not to mention their expectations for themselves, their marriage resembles a stale martini that’s been shaken for far too long. This would-be delicious mix of strong spirits has now become so agitated and diluted (or deluded) that it has lost its taste, but not the desire to jump down someone’s throat.
We join George and Martha very late one night after a faculty booze-up. Already thoroughly sauced, Martha announces that they’ll shortly have the new professor and his wife around to the house for an afterparty. Despite George’s objections, the pair are launched into hosting young new-comers Nick and Honey for an extended evening of drinks, witty banter and repartee- but coy teasing all too soon turns malicious. As George and Martha begin to square off against one another, using the younger couple as bait or pawns depending on the “party game”, it becomes painfully obvious that these increasingly uncomfortable cries for attention are made in a desperate effort to communicate and deal with their own unhappiness (natural devices, as Albee fully understood, in any romantic relationship).
The beauty of this play lies in its innate understanding of the ugliest aspects of married life, of growing old, of losing purpose and of the relentless weight of self-doubt and regret. We’re not over-saturated by plot or distracted by changes of scene or required to follow a dozen characters. It is a study of several hours in an average living room of two relatively average unhappy people who, like so many of us, can only find relief by playing emotional chess games meant to hurt those they love most, ending up in self-loathing and self-destruction. The play, with a razor sharp wit, offers moment upon tasty moment for the beautifully fleshed out characters, making for a plethora of possible choices which every actor new to the play can relish and explore.
That being said, the production doesn’t always live up to the text. It is a long play, always has been always will be, but there seems to be a pressure on the action to rattle on at a bewildering pace. There are many moments that pass by unnoticed because they haven’t been allowed time or space to come to full fruition and it is only when we finally get a pause in the unrelenting mud-slinging that we can feel the tension rather than always having to hear it in the dialogue. Of course some will argue that you don’t get the space for the climax of the play without getting through the first two acts at a steady click, but I love nothing more than to watch an actor (re)acting truthfully within the moment onstage. So much of the first two acts, though thoroughly enjoyable, felt like someone had just pressed play.
Tom Rooney, playing George, must receive due credit for his deeply sensitive yet blackly comic portrayal of the somewhat washed-out history prof. Though convincingly tired, his biting and vigorous intellect is awakened to threatening agility as he fights for the remaining scraps of his dignity. Ava Jane Marcus as the delightfully unassuming, constantly nauseous Honey lends some sweetness to the acrid atmosphere of the party as she releases her own rebellious streak and uncovers hidden struggles of her own less loud existence.
Always a thought provoking and side-splitting experience, this fantastic play should deservedly pack out the house of the Shoctor until its closing on February 13th (sorry, lovebirds, no Valentines rendez-vous with George and Martha!) so get your tickets to avoid missing out!
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf plays at The Citadel’s Shoctor Theatre from January 23rd to February 13th. Tickets can be purchased online at The Citadel Theatre.