WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
Taken as domestic drama, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a rather despicable work. Littered with misanthropy, misogyny, and vicious cruelty, it seems to be the product not of a rebellious enfant terrible but of a nasty spoiled brat biting the hands that provided the sizable pension fund. Albee’s characters are grotesque cartoons of upper-class, intellectual Americans, caricatures of the people who have embraced Albee’s plays and, in an act of self-loathing or failing to recognize themselves, vaulted the prep-school miscreant into the pantheon of great American dramatists.
The play works much better if you view it as what it is–a horror story. The harrowing tale of a seemingly sweet and innocent young couple who venture to an older couple’s house for a pleasant evening and leave with their illusions of a beautiful, peaceful world shattered beyond repair, Albee’s 1962 play has more in common with the works of camp-shock auteurs like Roger Corman and Arch Oboler than those of Eugene O’Neill, with whom Albee has often been compared. What elevates the play above its stock horror-film setup is the metaphysical level Albee suggests. His monsters are not terrifying mythical beasts but the illusions his characters create to protect themselves from an even more monstrous reality.
The older couple, the bickering George and Martha, have invented an imaginary son to block out the fact that they are incapable of having children. In creating a fictional child, George and Martha begin a destructive cycle of role playing that prevents them from expressing any genuine compassion toward each other. George and Martha’s exchanges amount to little more than insult and ridicule. They certainly don’t acknowledge their grim plight, in which the impotent professor George delves further into his history books and Martha lunges out for any sort of attention and drowns herself in drink.
The marriage of the young Aryan wonder Nick and his sweet, empty-headed wife Honey is also based on an illusion–a hysterical pregnancy. These two appear to be polar opposites of George and Martha–young, good-looking childhood sweethearts who call each other “dear”–but their cooing pleasantries conceal the same problems that George and Martha have: an inability to have children and the fact that there is no love between them. Albee suggests that Honey and Nick’s loving words are not all that different from George and Martha’s vitriolic repartee; both are phony constructs that cover up the horrors of the real world.
Albee’s characters are a scary bunch–cold George, who we’re led to believe murdered his own parents; the alcoholic nymphomaniac Martha, a child’s castration-anxiety nightmare of Mama Celeste; the ignorant, giggling Honey, who cannot separate illusion from reality; and the vain Nick, a sort of American Nightmare vision of the Ubermensch, whose good looks disguise a moral emptiness–he would do just about anything to get to the top.
At the end of the play, when George forces Martha to admit their son is imaginary by violating the rules of their game and “killing” the child, Albee doesn’t allow the audience to feel much hope for them. The fantasy has been exorcised, but the fears that created it are still there. The blurred line between illusion and reality has been brought into focus, but it makes no difference. For George and Martha, fact and fiction are equally horrific.
Albee’s nihilistic pessimism, which parallels the cold-war paranoia of popular horror flicks of the same period, may seem a little creaky. But that didn’t prevent director Michael Menendian and the actors in this Raven production from reaffirming the play’s power with an expertly realized production. Each performance is densely textured and every moment is gripping and heartfelt. Ted Rubenstein shies away from the New England iciness with which George is usually endowed and gives him an almost rabbinical pomposity, which makes the character even more believable and complex. In an arresting performance, JoAnn Montemurro as Martha avoids the usual Liz Taylor characterization and makes the role fully her own. Carri Levinson, touching and waiflike in the thankless role of Honey, achieves a good number of laughs with her airheaded ditz routine; and Peter Hobert as Nick is by turns wide-eyed and calculating, sympathetic and terrifying.