Friday, January 20, 2017

Lyric Stage Presents A Powerful "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" by Edward Albee - The Theatrical Event Of This Season!


If you are a fan of great theater, then there is no question about it; you must make your way to the Lyric Stage of Boston for the current production of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf."

When I learned a few weeks ago that James Earl Jones would be coming to Cambridge to appear in Tennessee Williams' "The Night Of The Iguana," I had one instant thought. "Surely, this will be the theatrical event of the Boston/Cambridge season." Well, after sitting through the gladiatorial contest that is "Virginia Woolf," I have concluded that the folks at the A.R.T. will be hard pressed to present a more riveting evening of theater than the one I experienced at the Lyric this week.

I have been attending plays and musicals at the Lyric for many years, and I have witnessed countless excellent productions. This revival of "Virginia Woolf" is simply the best work I have seen on the Lyric stage. There are three elements that lead to the powerful impact of this show. First, there is the unique voice of Edward Albee. He does with words what Michelangelo did with paint. Then there is the flawless direction of Scott Edmiston and the work of his creative team. Finally, there is the tireless professionalism of the quartet of actors who make Martha, George, Honey, and Nick spring to life from Albee's script. As Albee has written them, the members of the quartet are not playing in the same key, and the result is often verbal and relational cacophony. All three of these artistic elements are woven together seamlessly to create a memorable, impactful, poignant, and stunning production of this classic work of art and social commentary.

Paula Plum as Martha
Dan Whelton as Nick
Erica Spyres as Honey
Steven Barkhimer as George
"Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?'
by Edward Albee
Lyric Stage Company of Boston
Through February 12, 2017
Photo by Mark S. Howard
The wondrous set by Janie E. Howland tips us off to the chaos we are about to witness, even before the first tumbler of gin has been poured. If one looks carefully at the proscenium and the alignment of the doorways, it is clear that something is off. The angles are not quite 90 degrees. I will allow myself a bad pun here: in a production starring Paula Plum, the set is not quite plumb! The books on the numerous bookshelves are also askew - their tumbling matching the odd angles of the slant of the door frame. We are entering a world that is not quite right.

Lighting by Karen Perlow is superbly effective. There are scenes in which the actor in the spotlight begins to fade into a sort of twilight - a metaphorical illumination of the fact that the lives of these four individuals seem to be fading into some kind of metaphysical vanishing point. It is as if their lives are on a dimmer switch and their lives are slowly fading to black. The Sound Design by Dewey Dellay adds to the sense of impending doom. The Costumes by Charles Schoonmaker help to define each of the four characters. This is especially true after Martha goes to the bedroom to change and re-emerges in full buxomy cleavage mode - ready to make quick work of Nick as her next junior faculty sexual conquest.

Early in the play, shortly after Nick and Honey arrive at 2:00 in the morning for the After Party following a reception for new faculty, the young couple are admiring a painting that hangs - invisible to the audience - on the fourth wall. This painting - I think of it as an etching - serves as a metaphor for me for the play as a whole. Throughout the course of three acts, the four characters, especially Martha and George, spew forth words of such venom - words both acidic and acerbic - that they etch furrows into the souls of each of the other characters. They are burrowing down to the very marrow of one another's existence.

Paula Plum is simply mesmerizing as Martha, the daughter of the college President who married beneath her. She married the George - six years her junior - hoping that he would one day take over the history department and then be elevated to be Daddy's replacement as President. But he never rose to the occasion, and she despises him for his ineptitude and grayness. She chain smokes cigarettes and slugs down a geyser of gin on the rocks, apparently to fuel her steady stream of invective that she hurls at George. It seems to be a blood sport that they have tacitly agreed upon to make up for lack of tenderness or progeny in their marriage. They live in a fake world, and their fantasy is propped up by the perpetual motion machine that is Martha's tongue. Underneath the gin-stained steel exterior of Martha, Ms. Plum shows chinks in the armor - moments of vulnerability and fragility. As tough as she is, she collapses when George puts an end to their shared fantasy when he plays his own verbal games. Martha's fire burns hot and when she breathes her fire onto others, it often scalds those standing too close. This is a performance of consummate professionalism and power. It is gut-wrenching to behold.

Paula Plum as Martha
Dan Whelton as Nick
Steven Barkhimer as George
"Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?'
by Edward Albee
Lyric Stage Company of Boston
Through February 12, 2017
Photo by Mark S. Howard
Steven Barkhimer is equally Promethean in bringing fire to the role of George. For much of the play, the fire smolders under the surface. George is passive aggressive, standing back and taking Martha's verbal volleys. He is effete - a failed academic biding his time. But then when we least expect it, he pounces on Martha, unloading a tactical nuclear weapon that leaves her hollowed out and extinguished.

Dan Whelton plays the quietly ambitious Nick, newly appointed to the Biology Department, but dreaming of conquering broader worlds. He sees Martha as a key to advancement, and they engage in a mating dance guaranteed to step on more than a few toes. Dan takes abuse and derision from George until he cannot take any more, and then stands on his own two feet, and gives George a taste of his own bitter tonic. Mr. Whelton is perfectly cast in this challenging role.

Finally, Erica Spyres portrays Honey, a seemingly vacuous cipher who comes to life once she has enough brandy in her system to ignite a spark. She has a dark secret that Nick spills to George. Once George has been handed this weapon, he bides his time before choosing to launch it to maximum effect. Ms. Spyres brings Honey on a very convincing arand harrowing arc.

Mr. Albee was a master at using the words and actions of his characters to comment on the current trends in society, the state of academia, the vagaries of marriage and parenthood, the tectonic plates of relationships grinding against one another until the inevitable earthquake is unleashed. He celebrates precise language, and uses it both as a weapon and as a toy. Here is a delicious example. George uses the world "abstruse" in talking with Martha, and she objects. He retorts: "I mean abstruse in a recondite sort of way."

Sitting in the audience for this tour de force of a play and set of performances is a bit like being a spectator at a relational demolition derby. The last one standing and able to drive over the finish line wins. Or not. In any case, you will not be able to take your eyes off of the impending wreckage.

This is theater as it was meant to be - great writing setting the stage for great acting under the steady guidance of a director with a clear vision and a creative team equal to the herculean task of presenting painful truth in an accessible way. Pour yourself a toothful of gin and head to the Lyric. You will not be sorry.

Lyric Stage Website

Enjoy!

Al

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