There’s a line that comes about halfway through Edward Albee’s classic play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Unlike so much of the rest of Albee’s brutal and brilliant drama, it’s not a line full of anger or recrimination, or witty humor, or caustic observation.
As such, it stands out like a whisper in a rainstorm.
It is uttered by an extremely inebriated young woman named Honey, curled up on a couch after a period of extreme alcohol-fueled nausea, making her barely-conscious remark in response to her host, George, telling a deeply personal story, which Honey’s own husband, Nick, told George less than an hour before, while Honey was indisposed in the upstairs bathroom.
As it so happens, it’s a story about Honey.
“This story sounds familiar,” she murmurs softly, unexpectedly adding, “Familiar stories are the best.”
Sometimes, that’s true, isn’t it? Sometimes, familiar stories are the best.
That’s why classics like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” keep cycling through our culture every so often. They might have been written 55-years-ago, like “Virginia Woolf,” but the good ones – like “Virginia Woolf” – always seem to have something to say.
Whatever familiarity you might have with Albee’s masterpiece, or with George and Martha and Honey and Nick – that furious foursome of funny-and-ferocious married academics whose relationships all unravel spectacularly over the course of single evening – you’d be well advised to leave your expectations – and perhaps your past disappointments – at the door of Main Stage West, where director David Lear and his first rate cast are serving up a dry and dirty, perfectly poured presentation of Albee’s caustic excoriation of modern marriage and the deadly addictiveness of illusion and deceit.
If I seem to be using a lot of words, I am. After nearly three hours with these loquacious, word-wielding folks, you too might find yourself luxuriating in the rich highlights and lowlights of the English language.
In the play, George — a sensational Peter Downey — is a middling history professor at a small university, and his wife Martha — Sandra Ish, also marvelous — obviously resents him for his lack of academic ambition. Early one morning, after a lengthy faculty dinner, George and Martha have invited another couple over for drinks. Nick—John Browning, quite strong in a difficult role—is the school’s new biology professor, and his wife, Honey—a remarkable Rose Roberts—well, um, Honey has a habit it throwing up a lot when things become too “intense.”
So, you know, woe is them.
Director Lear keeps the tone masterfully light, recognizing that the escalating intensity of all those words works best when they’re delivered as if it’s all pretty hilarious – which, amazingly, it often is. The production’s best moments include Ish’s priceless expression when a potted Venus flytrap is placed in her hand as a “hostess gift.” Or Downey’s hilariously multi-layered response to Nick’s saying, “Well, you know women.” And words cannot describe Robert’s jaw-dropping brilliance when Honey launches an improvised dance that includes elements of ballet, hand-jive and a mime stuck in a box.
The brilliance of Albee’s script, of course, and this razor-sharp interpretation, lies in the awareness that beautiful truths can be found even amongst people as vile and ruthless as these. Yes, they are, to varying degrees, swine, but they are remarkably believable swine. And as George so memorably puts it, late in the show, “You have to have a swine to show you where the truffles are.”
‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ runs Thursday–Sunday through March 19 at Main Stage West www.mainstagewest.com