Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Credit: Michael Brosilow

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Edward Albee’s 1962 masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, can play like an exceptionally sophisticated soap opera—and it’s often treated as such by directors, critics, and audiences. With its acerbic humor, coarse, sometimes obscene language, and realistic setting, the three-hour, three-act piece has been received as a harrowing portrait of a dysfunctional marriage, featuring easily identifiable issues like alcohol dependency and infertility.

But underneath the naturalistic surface are layers of poetic symbolism and sociopolitical commentary. Influenced by Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, Albee saw his characters’ relationships as embodiments of larger existential and historical themes. And Pam MacKinnon’s powerful revival for Steppenwolf superbly balances the immediacy of the story with Albee’s long view.

The play focuses on a middle-aged couple—bookish, seemingly ineffectual George, an associate history professor at a small New England college, and his lusty, binge-drinking, ball-breaking wife, Martha, daughter of the school’s president. After a punishing 23 years of marriage they’ve developed a bleak routine in which light jests turn into cutting jabs and trivial disagreements escalate into major battles. Late one Saturday night, after a faculty party, Martha invites a younger couple—handsome young biology professor Nick and mousy Honey—back to the house, where she and George use them as pawns in a relentless and profane game of one-upmanship. In the course of the liquor-fueled verbal brawl, Martha lets slip that she and George have a son who, she says, is returning the next day to celebrate his 21st birthday. George is enraged—not only by mention of the son, who (spoiler alert) has always been their private fiction, but also by Martha’s flirtations with Nick. A geneticist, Nick poses both a professional and sexual threat to George: he represents the wave of the future while George is stuck in a discipline that an innovation-loving society would just as soon ignore.

Finally roused from emotional hibernation, George shreds the lies and illusions that have sustained the marriage, particularly the ones involving the couple’s “son.”

The theme of the invented, estranged, and/or destroyed child shows up frequently in the works of Albee, who was adopted as a baby by a wealthy couple. In his 1961 one-act, The American Dream, Mommy and Daddy murder one son and replace him with his twin. Nick can be considered a surrogate, too, for George and Martha’s nonexistent offspring. Though Nick is 28, George repeatedly refers to him as being 21, and the way George bests Nick in a second-act game of “Get the Guests” foreshadows his “murder” of the son later on.

In some ways Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is terribly dated. Given the advances in our understanding of substance abuse since 1962, for instance, there were times when I felt like jumping up and shouting, “For God’s sake, stop this silly shit and go into rehab!” But the deeper theme informing George and Martha’s verbal and physical battles is all too resonant today. It’s set forth most clearly at the end of act two, when George—humiliated by his wife’s blatant infidelity with Nick—reads aloud to himself from a history book: “And the West, encumbered by crippling alliances and burdened with a morality too rigid to accommodate itself to the swing of events, must eventually fall.”

George’s decision to “kill” the illusory son is a step toward breaking a crippling alliance and saving his seemingly doomed marriage. It’s also a metaphor for the idea that the West could stave off ruin if it would just face facts. Forty-eight years ago Albee might’ve been thinking about cold-war geopolitics. Today, the play seems to me to speak to our hell-bent determination to wage war against the Muslim world while bankrupting ourselves.

Of the many productions of the play I’ve seen, this is the most coherent. MacKinnon—an experienced Albee interpreter who also directed The Play About the Baby for the Goodman Theatre’s 2003 Albee festival—is working with a first-rate cast; together they’ve broken down every beat of the text to probe not only the characters’ dramatic arcs but the dialogue’s deeper resonances.

Tracy Letts’s pipe-chomping, brooding, introspective George is a welcome change from the quirkily mannered one Bill Irwin created for a Broadway production that toured to Chicago in 2007. Letts’s George is a man who’s made emotional and intellectual compromises to sustain a soured marriage and is now discovering that those compromises are no longer sufficient. With her crackling, sexy stage presence and ironic wit, Amy Morton is a keenly self-aware Martha who, despite her incessant jokes at her husband’s expense, holds out hope that intimacy and a sense of partnership might someday return to their relationship. Though dark-haired rather than blond as the script specifies, Madison Dirks embodies Albee’s vision of Nick as a modern American übermensch. And Carrie Coon is moving as Honey, a character all too easily played for misogynistic laughs as a ditzy twit.

Todd Rosenthal’s set—the living room and study of a sprawling old house, in which every shelf and tabletop is overflowing with stacks of dusty books—communicates the crucial fact that George and Martha are smart, well-educated people whose conversation, even when drunken and rambling, demands close attention. Like all great plays, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a work in which every word counts.   v

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