“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Not you, if a visit to the Booth
is on your current To-Do List
by TONY VELLELA
Thanks to Chicago’s ideal Christmas gift to Broadway, you’ve got the perfect New Year’s Eve resolution. Permit me to explain . . .
At different times, I’ve been told by Julie Harris, Anne Jackson, Maureen
Stapleton, Eli Wallach, Olympia Dukakis and Anne Meara, that the single most influential performance they’d ever seen was Laurette Taylor, as Amanda in “The Glass Menagerie.” Today, young audience members can experience a similarly powerful performance unfold, as Amy Morton rips into another iconic character, Martha. Morton will impact these audience members in the powerful, gripping and very truthful production of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’” Directed with a keen eye by Pam MacKinnon, this event comes courtesy of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.
In addition to my extensive interviews with Albee’s original Martha, Uta Hagen, I’ve also done similar sessions with other Marthas – Uta’s matinee stand-in Elaine Stritch, plus Estelle Parsons, Judith Ivey and Kathleen Turner. I’ve seen Kathleen on stage, on the job, Elaine do line readings for me in her Long Island living room, plus Estelle at my place, and Judy in an empty theatre downtown. Plus, I’ve seen the other Taylor [Elizabeth, not Laurette] in the film version. I also taped a revealing interview with the playwright. In addition, I regularly teach this play as one of my four-part workshops on great American plays and characters. So one could say I have a fairly strong familiarity with this Albee masterwork.
Now that I’ve tossed out all that show-offy credentializing, I want to state that, right now, at the Booth, Morton is creating the kind of sparks-flying, juices-flowing, thunder-deafening, heartbeat-threatening performance than stands with the sterling reports of Laurette’s Amanda. Despite popular thinking from those who know only the basic facts about the play and the character, and true to Martha’s own voluble pronouncement to her husband, she is not a monster.
Let’s step back a moment. Who are these people? Martha, and her husband George, are a middle-aged, intellectually-and-culturally besotted small New England college professor in the history department, and his stay-at-home wife, [she being the only child of the college president]. They live in 1962’s sharply divided class-influenced society. When we meet them, at about 2 A.M. on a Sunday morning in September, they’re just arriving home – we hear her laughter as they struggle to unlock the front door. They are returning from one of Martha’s Daddy’s start-of-term faculty mixers, the kind of social event that Martha loves [she gets to be, publicly, the daughter dauphine], and George abhors [he is publicly the daughter dauphine's socially regressed consort]. They launch into a brief, amusing and seemingly familiar squabble and reconciliation. Then, minutes later, to George’s surprise, and Martha’s delight, a much younger couple, Nick and Honey, show up. He is a strapping, middle-weight, biology professor, new to the school, and she is his adoring, brandy-imbibing, mousy-type wife. Madison Dirks (Nick) and Carrie Coon (Honey) deliver pitch-perfect characterizations.
Early events seem to make it clear that this set-up is following a familiar pattern in the their home life, as any new faculty member [young virile male] and his forgettable spouse get invited to the home of the First Daughter, and her marital appendage, George, who is in, but not head of the history department. The scenario kicks off with Martha changing into something ‘more comfortable,’ i.e. seduction garb. George [the spot-on Tracy Letts] tolerates this maneuver, even as Martha’s overt footsie-ing seems to be accelerating at a faster-than-usual pace, in part due to Nick’s receptivity and Honey’s brandy-induced oblivion. Morton is not at all clumsy executing the ’steps’ that loosen up the party, especially one of the younger parties. And during the next three-plus hours, we witness four people in various stages of meltdown, the truths of their personal and professional lives ground to raw nubs. George at first refuses to engage the couple in any conventional chit-chat. Then in a new twist, George launches into a series of mind games meant to embarrass and unnerve the young professor, and to disrupt Martha’s routine. We see her and her husband adopt a chilling open warfare stance, progressing from stinging verbal assaults to actual physical ones. Secrets come out; lies are exposed; agendas are questioned; fantasies are shattered.
This real-time play unflinchingly tells all these stories in the book-laden, newspaper-strewn living room, dotted with empty glasses and stale pipes. Theatre archives bulge with a variety of variation on the father/son confrontation premise. This current revival of Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” presents a unique father/son drama, because even though we never see Daddy in the room, and even though his only offspring is female, it takes its place as one of the most powerful of that genre ever written.
And the remarkable Amy Morton has managed to find the correct balance between the male and the female sides of offspring Martha. After her mother died, Martha was the one who graciously served as hostess in her teen years, for her Daddy’s receptions, until she got pushed aside, when he remarried, to a woman with lots of money to plow into the college. Martha’s the one who enchanted George, leading him down the garden path, straight to the altar, because she at that time saw him as a likely candidate to take the old man’s place heading up the college. She’s the one who sowed wild oats while away at an exclusive boarding school [with roles reversed - she got pregnant by the gardener, instead of 'the wayward prodigal son' knocking up the town waitress]. Whenever discussing Martha, always keep in mind that the playwright describes her as ‘a large boisterous woman, 52, looking somewhat younger. Ample, but not fleshy.’
She’s 52, so she was born in 1910! She was a rebellious youth [teen years] in the reckless 1920s. She was drafted into the ‘proper hostess’ role, to help Daddy, in the financially lean 1930s, when those receptions led to endowments. She married the potentially malleable suitor in the 1940s, trying to groom him for ascendancy to the big office. She remains childless to this day, a complex woman, trapped in the genteel role she rebelled against four decades ago, but with George instead of Daddy as King of the Castle. Taken together, it’s hardly surprising that she is who she is. In Uta’s view, Martha was someone that was “…cold. Nobody ever had any sympathy for her, so she doesn’t have any sympathy for anybody. She’s quite vulnerable.” Kathleen Turner pictured her never having been praised, never hearing “…you’re a good girl, Martha.” To Judith Ivey, her Martha has learned to use the phrase “. . . give me a drink . . . that’s the concrete place she can go to,” adding “. . . she’s vulnerable through the whole play.” Asked to describe Martha, Elaine Stritch said to me “She’s an alcoholic. I’ve played a lot of parts that deal with alcohol, women who drink . . . I know a lot about alcohol because I’m an alcoholic . . . she’ll do anything to get what she wants, and the drink makes it easier to get there . . . that feeling of total control and escape.” Estelle Parsons’ quick response was “she’s a drunk.”
Now – Amy Morton. A more comprehensive understanding of how complex Martha is, would require highly-honed creative skills to integrate all these aspects into one performance, playing a character that we only see that one night – and in real time. I don’t know at all how this actor prepares to create a character. Certainly, her performance in “August: Osage County” proved her ability to juggle a raft of competing emotions like one of those mind-blowing Ed Sullivan performers who could keep an egg, a book, a football, a dinner plate and a hatchet in the air all at the same time. Here, she is tackling a person whose biographical and psychological facets are just as diverse, and can be just as threatening.
Watch how she can turn on a dime, and switch gears from faux demure to fierce lioness. See the woman’s body shifting back and forth, from teen queen at the drive-in take-out concession stand, to weary matron, trying to hold herself together despite the ways time and gravity work against her. The first ‘reveal,’ when Martha admits to George that she let it slip about the boy, presents a woman genuinely remorseful. She evolves into the initially-unwilling combatant. She can be as intellectually savvy as her professor husband – watch how she handles the moment when George attempts to correct her choice of the word ‘abstruse’ to describe Nick: GEORGE: Abstract. MARTHA: ABSTRUSE! In the sense of recondite. Don’t you tell me words.” Game. Set. Match.
It’s very revealing how she navigates her tough, yet gentle monologue that slowly and contemplatively opens Act Three. Three pages later, a different monologue delivered to Nick reveals a painful truth, and she delivers this one as though it’s been waiting to be spoken out loud, for years and years.
Morton uses Albee’s words like a composer uses notes: carefully selecting the right one to precede and follow others. She uses movements and silences just as judiciously, never giving in to obvious, stereotypical choices some have made. Uta’s comment on the film version, with Elizabeth Taylor, “You just play for a drunken slut, which is in a way what [Elizabeth] Taylor tried to do.”
So let us thank Steppenwolf for this historic gift, seeing Amy Morton bring to life, fully, this fascinating, fearful yet fearless, nearly desperate, fragile yet steely woman of a certain age, a cougar before the dynamic had a name, and in name only. And our New Year’s resolution should be to gather together a group of friends, see this gem of a play, and then luxuriate in the chance to exchange viewpoints and comments and opinions and such like that.
Happy New Year!
TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.” His award-winning play “Admissions,” which received three New York productions directed by Austin Pendleton, was selected as Best Play at the New York International Fringe Festival, published by Playscripts. He is also the author of several other plays, musicals and revues. He wrote the CableAce Award-winning “The Test of Time,” for Lifetime Television. He conducts small-class intensive classes from his home, and information can be obtained by inquiring at firstname.lastname@example.org.