“Total War”. Review of OACT's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
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By Sami Zahringer
Photos by Tom Moore
It’s games night at George and Martha’s in mid-century New Carthage. The arena is a faded sitting-room and the games are bullying and dangerous - psychological blood sport from which nobody will emerge unscathed.
Illusions are viciously shattered and the shards used to score cold, terrible reality into the psyches of all four characters in Edward Albee’s classic play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, now playing at Ojai Art Center Theater.
We are on the campus of an East Coast University. It’s 2 a.m. and a faculty party has just finished. George, a middle-aged associate history professor, has returned home tired and deflated. To his dismay, his wife Martha, daughter of the college president, has invited the young new biology professor, Nick, and his mousy wife, Honey, over for a cozy after-party; “Daddy says we have to be nice to them.”
Over the next three hours, played out almost in real time, these four characters wage savage war, wounding each other pitilessly as the secrets and lies in their marriages are exploded right in front of our eyes, and the phantoms of their children haunt the boards. It’s dazzlingly clever, drink-sodden and savage. It’s straight-up voyeurism for the audience, shattering and terrible, and we cannot look away.
Martha is one of the most fascinating characters in all theatrical history. She is a venomous, spitting shrew, careening between psychotic rage and desolate vulnerability and she presents enormous interpretive scope for an actor.
Tracey Williams Sutton meets this demanding role with relish and fire. She gives us a controlled Martha, less sloppy and flailing with her verbal knives than she is deliberate and precise. We feel her knife has long been in George, all she has to do is twist it.
She cannot forgive George his aging body and his lack of career advancement and, over the years, she has nursed her disappointment in him, feeding it with her “hideous gifts” and “ugly talents”, making it monstrous and demented. She baits George constantly, humiliating and emasculating him in front of their bewildered guests.
At first tired and defeated, and as in the mood to appease Martha as she is to punish him, George is soon goaded to life and responds to her with scalding sarcasm and increasing, almost psychotic violence, culminating in a final devastating act of mental cruelty which leaves her shattered on the floor, and the audience gasping.
This complex play is brimful of dark subtleties and one of the great joys of it is that there are many ways to mine its rich themes. As well-known as it is, each production will tease out and emphasize different things and each good production will highlight things in the play you haven’t noticed before.
This is a very good production, the material ably and thoughtfully handled by director Tom Eubanks. Eubanks and stage-manager, Ezra Eels, set the stage perfectly to recreate mid-century America, and the actors move around it in seemingly perfect synch with one another.
But this production’s particular strength is the living autopsy of George’s psyche. Eviscerated by Martha, sliced open by the threat of the sterile new world of cold science that Nick represents, Michael Perlmutter gives us an inspired look into the wife-lashed and truly frightening mindscape of a washed-up but very clever man, railing against his own troubled past, his insufferable present, and an uncertain future. From shabby and defeated, Perlmutter moves George seamlessly to menacing and viciously dangerous. It is a mesmerizing, perfectly-pitched performance.
Sean Flynn (grandson of the famous Errol) is excellent in the role of Nick. Wolfish from the start, he paces the stage with predatory, loose-limbed confidence; he is restless, testy, and thoroughly aware of his alpha-male status in relation to shabby, emasculated George.
Some of the strongest scenes in this production are between Nick and George as they circle, “peeling the label” off each other to reveal disturbing truths. Nick represents a new order that threatens George. He is ambitious, calculating, disloyal and unscrupulous.
He has married his “fragile” wife for money and plans to “plow” his way to the top via the more important university wives, Martha included. Nick has youth and ambition on his side but it is George who has the stamina. His violent outbursts and cruel games persist long after everybody else is exhausted.
Honey, sickly and scatter-brained, waifish and wailing, is played with dizzy relish by the talented Jessica D. Stone. Soused in brandy for most of the play, she is constantly retreating to the bathroom to be sick. During one of these absences, Nick tells George that his dreamy and suggestible wife has had a “hysterical pregnancy” and George, in a twisted, teasing game of “Get the Guests” uses this information to sadistically smash her small, harmless pretensions.
Stone plays the distressing moment when she realizes Nick’s betrayal to truly heart-breaking effect. It is a moment of horrible dawning awareness that foreshadows the play’s ending and the audience’s gradual realization about the terrible secret in George and Martha’s marriage.
Produced by veteran local performer Vivian Latham, this is beautifully handled, accomplished theater that you will think and talk about long after you leave the building.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” runs through Feb. 22nd at Ojai ACT, 113 S. Montgomery St. at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $18 general and $15 for seniors, students and Art Center members. Reservations may be made by calling (805) 640-8797 or by visiting www.OjaiACT.org