Actor’s Theater of San Francisco presents:
Edward Albee

This particular presentation of Albee’s timeless classic ends December 19th and I urge every reader of this review to waste no time in buying a ticket to experience a magnificent interpretation of a play that speaks to every one of us as civilized (or perhaps not so civilized) human beings in a society that doesn’t know whether to value or deride the institution of marriage. Yet, we believe in its value so strongly that members of the same sex fight to have the right to attain the status it brings. Couples insist on publicly declaring their undying love (whatever that means) in a ceremony that legally binds them together for life, only to discover all too soon that they cannot live under its restrictive demands.

I have seen at least four productions WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF. It is a gripping and alarming play about what marriage really means and why we allow it to crush us even as it nourishes our egos. The dialogue shines an unforgiving light on how destructive a relationship can be and why we continue to endure it. Although the play is over three hours long and relies on word play rather than action, my attention has never flagged. I am mesmerized by the blatant hatred and cruelty of each character toward the other and reminded over and over again that I escaped a potential torture chamber when I gave up the idea of matrimony.
The story centers on Martha, the daughter of a college president. Her husband, George, a forty something professor of history is on the faculty. Martha invites Nick, a newly hired biology teacher and his wife Honey to their home for late night drinks. This sets the scene for verbal warfare between Martha and George, and savage attacks on their guests. The title of the play is a take-off of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf”. Albee got the idea for its name when he saw the phrase scrawled on a mirror. He says, “And of course, who's afraid of Virginia Woolf means who's afraid of the big bad wolf . . . who's afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical, university intellectual joke.”
I have to say that the Actor’s Theatre of San Francisco‘s production is hands down the best I have ever seen. For the first time, I had compassion for the characters and felt the emotional pain each suffered that drove them to their merciless sniping of one another. Of all the productions I have seen, this one had the smallest budget and yet the set is exactly right, the direction perfectly paced and the actors, real human beings. Christian Phillips, who played George in this production and in two previous presentations of the play, once in 2000 and again in 2005, makes the play. He is the founder of Actors Theatre and has been its artistic director for twenty years. “In my opinion he is one of the best actors in the bay area,” says James Baldock who designed the sets for this production. “He never gets enough credit for his work. I don't think you can find a more skillful actor than he is.”

And I agree completely. It takes consummate skill to like the bitter, sniping, verbally caustic man alternately biting at his wife and suffering her derision. Yet I never once lost compassion for George on that stage. The other members of the cast were up to the challenge of the play as well. Rachel Klyce “gave as good as she got” and the young couple were alternately shocked, fascinated and part of the warfare with equal skill. Still it must be said that it is Phillips who holds dramatic action together. He is superb and it is a tribute to his immense abilities that he never overshadows or upstages the others as the play moves toward its diabolical end.

This play premièred in 1963 and it is frightening to realize that it is just as germane today as it was then. Marriages dissolve and destroy with relentless regularity. “I will love you forever” is a joke, not a promise even more today than in 1963. This play explores why this is so, then and now. Both couples need one another and prey upon one another. Indeed, if need and dependency and years of familiarity are the glue that binds a couple, Martha and George have a achieved a marriage that will last until they die. I saw my parents fight, snipe at one another, bait each other, scream, fight and explode on a daily basis. Their marriage lasted for over fifty years and when I asked my father if he loved my mother, he said, “Of course I do. Your mother and I balance one another. We are a perfect pair.”

I was horrified and it soured me on relationships ever after. However, Edward Albee would nod his head at that remark. I have no doubt he would say, “George and Martha have an ideal marriage as well.”

See this play and draw your own conclusions. I cannot promise that you will be comfortable with the anger, the verbal fisticuffs and the savage verbal warfare on that stage. I cannot promise that you will know whom to hate and whom to love as you watch these four tormented people attack one another with no regard for their humanity. But I do promise over three hours of captivating drama, performed impeccably. I promise that you won’t forget this performance or this play for many days to come. It will force you to re- evaluate every preconceived notion you ever had about what makes a marriage and what is love.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf:
Thursdays-Saturdays @ 8pm through December 19
Matinee@ 2 pm December 6
Actor’s Theatre of San Francisco
855 Bush, betw. Mason & Taylor\Tickets; 415 786 1287
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