PacRep’s Woolf revival displays comedy, tragedy in classic take of marital woes.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
There are moments in Michael Jacobs’ performance as George in the Pacific Repertory Theatre’s new production of Edward Albee’s groundbreaking play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, in which Jacobs seems not so much to stand on the stage, but fill the room. Standing alone, talking as much to himself as to Martha, the most famous theatrical shrew since Shakespeare’s time – let alone Nick and Honey, the hapless visitors to their living room who become unwitting witnesses to their domestic drama – he is caught in an interior drama beyond the ability of the other players (except, perhaps, his wife) to grasp, let alone resolve.
The very picture of an embittered academic in his sweater vest, loosened tie and mockingly ornate speech patterns, George commands respect for the depth of his anger at the state of his marriage, his career and the world. In the clipped cadences that anticipated the likes of David Mamet and Neil LaBute, he spares no one, including himself, from the ongoing laceration.
“Let me tell you a secret, baby,” he confides to Nick, the young biology teacher on the make – a one-dimensional character played one-dimensionally by Ted D’Agostino. “There are easier things in this world. If you happen to be teaching at a university, there are easier things than being married to the daughter of the president of that university.”
This is merely throat-clearing, a prelude to the mutally assured destruction – the now-fabled games of Humiliate the Host, Get the Guests, Hump the Hostess and Bringing Up Baby – yet to come in the course of Albee’s long day’s journey into alcoholic night.
All the more pity, then, that Julie Hughett as Martha does not seem quite up to the challenge. From her famous opening scene invocation of Bette Davis (“What a dump’’) to the through-line of the Strindbergian relationship, Hughett, while always professional, seems excessively broad, less the memorable virago Albee created than a barmaid who sounds like a cross between Eileen Brennan and Bonnie Hunt.
The chemical connection between this famously dysfunctional couple is largely missing here, except for the glimpses in which Martha allows herself a sportsmanlike enjoyment of George’s cruel baiting, or the two turn on Nick for presumptuously confusing their aggression with a lack of abiding affection.
The comparisons to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s film version are as inevitable as they are unfair; by that ridiculously high standard, Jacobs fares damn well. Even if it’s a performance that sometimes sounds irritable in contrast to Burton’s towering rage, he’s found a way to make the character his own.
So has Anne Louise Marquis, in her performance as Nick’s wife, Honey, a similarly easily parodied character whom she manages to bring new life to, tapping into the unhappiness and anger as the “better half” of this couple whose woes in some ways parallel those of George and Martha.
“I dance like the wind,” she declares, in a successful depiction of a faculty wife desperately trying to keep up.
It’s always a challenge to mount an entirely successful production of a play that has become a modern-day classic. And even though Albee’s deadly dialogue remains by and large pitch-perfect, it’s a somewhat curious choice at this particular cultural moment, when the perennial war between the sexes has been replaced by something more resembling cautious optimism. It’s the kind of project that should be embarked on either by reinventing the production, or going deeper into the text, so that you can forget what you already know about the play and find new meaning.
George’s windier speeches, denouncing Nick’s scientific background as a renunciation of his own field, history (not for nothing are the two main characters named for the Father of our Country and the first First Lady, the playwright has noted), do not stand the test of time as well as the still whip-sharp abuse.
But the final scene, after George has killed off their metaphorical son so the couple can look ahead to a life without illusions, still has staying power, as they sink into an armchair, and each other. And Jacobs’ performance is a revelation.
“George and Martha: sad, sad, sad,” Martha memorably muses as the evening staggers to a close. But the anger, and energy, that propelled this landmark play into our consciousness is anything but sad. Any production that comes close to capturing it is an occasion for reflection, if not celebration, on where we have been and where we are going.
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF plays 7:30pm Thu-Sat; 2pm Sun at the Golden Bough Theatre, Monte Verde between Eighth and Ninth, Carmel. $30-35/genereal; $22-26/senior 65+; $10-15/student, teacher, military; $7 child. 622-0100, www.pacerep.org