It’s only when Jeanine Kane sprawls, spent, downstage, having wrung out every ounce of emotion, voice barely above a whisper, that the audience exhales, realizing the three-hour psychological pummeling of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has ended.
The acclaimed, Tony Award-winning Edward Albee piece, on stage at The Gamm, ferociously dissects the American dream and our blind pursuit of institutions like marriage and parenthood that can wrongly define and ultimately destroy people like Martha, Kane’s character.
Director Steve Kidd calls the production, considered Albee’s finest, “shadowy and devious” for its ability to transcend generations since its 1962 debut and leave a searing impression on audiences. He builds on that — layering stellar performances from his four-person cast — to craft a piece that’s provocative and draining, though simultaneously exhilarating in its assertions.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? centers on two couples in crisis — one turning disappointment in their inability to have children into a gin-soaked, insult-riddled existence, another hiding struggles and lies beneath a rosy veneer.
At the beginning of the new college term, George, a professor, and Martha, the college president’s daughter, invite a new professor and his wife home for a nightcap. The young couple get a front-row seat to the bitter barbs that mark George and Martha’s marriage. The verbal assaults alarm and wound the younger couple, Nick and Honey, whose own dirty secrets emerge.
Albee’s scenes — three dissected by two intermissions — overlay twisted words and fabrications to illustrate the tendency to interchange illusion and reality as the couples compete with each other and expectations of loved ones, society, and themselves. His banter is wickedly humorous and laced with sexual innuendo, leaving the audience self-consciously chuckling over the sad state of these marriages.
Against a visually appealing set — ceiling-high bookcases are peppered with a half dozen small lamps and a fully stocked bar — Kidd coaxes a wash of emotions from the cast and audience. There is sadness, anger, frustration, jealousy, and pity swirling as George and Martha’s dysfunction draws the skeletons in Nick and Honey’s relationship to surface.
The couples embody the lengths to which people will go to create the illusion they’re achieving the American Dream. But as the play unfolds, stories don’t match, recollections become murky, other stories transpose across multiple generations.
“You swing wildly,” George says of Martha’s insults, a statement that applies to the entire plot, which, like Martha’s words, hits hard.
Four actors bring the tragicomedy to life with such fervent passion they each seem exhausted by the end. Kane’s Martha matches with Gamm artistic director Tony Estrella as George, while Gunnar Manchester and Gabrielle McCauley play Nick and Honey. Each develops a character that is relatable in their frailties and heartache.
Kane’s interpretation of the relentlessly bitter Martha is steeped in vitriol until she dissolves as their parenthood sham is revealed. She channels a palpable level of sadness and a powerful portrayal of alcoholism for a riveting performance. In the final scenes, as George sings “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (to the tune of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf”), she weakly says, “I am” and the ruse collapses.
Kane’s portrayal of a drunk is only rivaled by McCauley’s. She flounces, dances, sings and physically embodies the effects of alcohol believably as she expertly reveals a peek at the crumbling woman behind the façade.
The men in Virginia Woolf prove equally compelling. Estrella masterfully balances a professional deserving of respect with the hen-pecked shell of a husband trying to hold things together by deflecting insults and hurts. Manchester’s face reveals much of Nick’s story, flashing easily from indignation to resignation, making each believable.
This is a landmark play given the full-throttle Gamm treatment — gutting at times in the way we expect of live theatre.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is on stage at The Gamm through February 25. For tickets or more information, go to gammtheatre.org.