WESTON — In “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” a middle-aged couple tear each other apart, reducing each other to their cores. But what makes this 1962 drama by Edward Albee one of the iconic masterpieces of theater is that they are simultaneously reassuring themselves of their bond — and deep love.
Weston Playhouse opened a powerhouse production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Saturday that was riveting as it went from witty and entertaining to intensely and deeply troubling to a final sense of understanding. It was an emotionally wrought and exciting night in the theater.
The play, made famous by the 1966 Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton film, opens with George and Martha returning home from a faculty party. He is an associate professor of history at a small New England college, and she is daughter of the president. The banter — and drinking — begins immediately, but remains more witty than caustic until Martha announces she has invited a new young faculty member and his wife for after-party drinks.
Nick, a new member of the biology department, and his wife Honey, mousy and overwhelmed, are expecting a quiet drink to cement their place in the faculty hierarchy. But it doesn’t take long for them to become foils for George and Martha’s caustic psychological games in this booze-sodden get together.
Still, Nick is young, arrogant and ambitious, and sure he can turn this situation to his advantage. Martha makes no secret of her attraction to the handsome young man, and George doesn’t seem to care.
However, George’s interest in Nick soon has the younger man telling him his secrets, both about his marriage to Honey and his plan for ascension up the college ladder. Honey’s innocence, and inability to hold her liquor, only underscores the cynicism of the others.
Martha inadvertently reveals hers and George’s secret and when George finds out, the battle between them is in earnest — and Nick and Honey may well go down in its flames. But before the downward spiral ends, we find out what holds George and Martha together.
What gives “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” its power is the authenticity of its characters, made all the more compelling as they are peeled layer by layer. But, what makes it irresistible is that it is simultaneously a black comedy and a love story.
The Weston Playhouse production, directed by Mike Donahue, had all those qualities in spades, thanks much to an excellent cast. But Donahue’s staging was straightforward, without affectation, delivering the message point blank.
Andrew Garman’s George and Kathleen McElfresh’s Martha played off each other beautifully as they revealed the hurt beneath. Garman took George from a henpecked “loser” with his own weapons to a man of depth and caring, while McElfresh convincingly brought Martha from sure-of-herself cynical to heartbroken.
Nick’s journey from cocky to, well, not cocky, was skillfully managed by Jeffrey Omura. And Kristin Villanueva’s Honey had more character than is common for this role, making the whole performance more substantial.
There were a few opening night gaffes, but it is doubtful that much of the audience noticed due to the power of the performance. And there were a few oddities, like Martha and Nick dancing on the furniture. But, most importantly, the quartet had the intimacy of chamber music, making all of the characters sympathetic. Well, mostly sympathetic.
The physical production was of Weston’s usual high level. Dane Laffrey’s simple but effective staging placed the action on a platform above the stage for some reason (perhaps for immediacy?). Effective lighting by Scott Zeilinski, appropriate costumes by Anya Klepikpov, and complementary sound design by Sinan Zafar completed the ideal backdrop.
Weston’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is about as rich and rewarding theater as can be found in Vermont.