February 26, 2020

Are you afraid of Virginia Woolf? Curtains go up on Penobscot Theatre’s production of Edward Albee’s classic play

George and Martha are having a party. Mind you, they’ve already been to a party tonight. The president of the university – who happens to be Martha’s father – welcomed this year’s new faculty at a civilized gathering earlier at his house on campus. It’s well after midnight but Martha and George, who also live on campus because George teaches history, are just getting started. And besides, Martha cozied up to a promising young biology professor at Daddy’s, and now he and his sweet little wife are coming for cocktails.

Let the games begin.

That is, let the curtain go up on the Penobscot Theatre production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which opens tonight and runs through Feb. 15 at the Opera House in Bangor. A scorching story of two couples whose one-night party leaves the American Dream singed on the battlefield, “Virginia Woolf” is Edward Albee’s breakthrough play and one of the classics of 20th century American drama – heir apparent to Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. But wisecracking and absurd (as in theater-of-the), and more overtly vitriolic. With this one, Albee put the fun in dysfunctional.

Perhaps in the age of Jerry Springer and Geraldo Rivera, “Virginia Woolf” seems tame. After all, the TV exposes are the stories that engage us today, and when Albee’s Martha drunkenly spits insults at George, whom she finds both ineffectual and necessary, the air is filled with something as pathetic and voyeuristic as a Springer segment of “Why I Threw My Two-timing Boyfriend Into the Street.”

The difference, of course, is that Albee makes you think. You may laugh and cringe and blanch, too, but you can’t pick up the remote and switch the channel. You have to sit there and grapple with the discomfort, with the language and the underlying anxieties of American life – in the case of this play, a country poised for nuclear war, and about to face the Soviet Union, Cuba, the 1960s, and assassins who would take down a president, his brother and a civil rights hero. That demand on your attention span alone creates a significant part of Albee’s drama.

So sit back and relax? Hardly. Remember: George and Martha are expecting games, and we’re not talking Taboo, Celebrity or Charades. Oh no. The pursuit is anything but trivial. How about a few rounds of Humiliate the Host, Get the Guests, and worse. Now would you like another scotch?

Here’s a little nugget from George toward the end of the first of three acts: “In my mind, Martha, you are buried in cement, right up to your neck. No … right up to your nose … that’s much quieter.”

The insult may seem harnessed compared to the four-letter words and adult situations of contemporary TV and film that have inured us to profanity. But Albee creates tension in more penetrating and poetic ways. The drama comes from the polarities between reality and illusion, love and hate, nature and nurture, old and young, tragedy and comedy – and that uniquely insightful way spouses locate each other’s weak spots and dive into them.

Yet “Virginia Woolf” is also a love story, also a comedy.

“It remains to me a very funny and entertaining play,” said Mark Torres, who is directing the script for the first time. “It’s a difficult play, but at least we can say we weren’t invited to THAT party. And the fact is we need to do heavyweight work like this. It’s an opportunity to be in the room with the play. To go through the experience of it is, ultimately, very fun. Finally I think it’s an optimistic play.”

“It can be exhilarating,” said Richard Brucher, a University of Maine professor who is teaching “Virginia Woolf” in his American drama class this semester. “But it also keeps you on guard. Albee’s is clever, incisive wit. I don’t know if I would call it uplifting exactly. I find it sardonic.”

Torres and Brucher see a timeline between the 1966 black-and-white film adaptation starring Richard Burton as George and Elizabeth Taylor as Martha, and the more recent HBO film version of Tony Kushner’s odyssey about gay life and Reaganomics “Angels in America.” Mike Nichols (“The Graduate” and “Primary Colors”) directed both works, which seem to speak to each other across four decades of American life – and even reach back to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”

“They are interested in blowing the cover of complacency,” said Brucher. “They are looking at what purported to be a stable time, and peeling the veneer off of that.”

“There is a sense about the ‘Virginia Woolf’ period that it was a good time,” added Torres. “My mother has said as much.”

Very “Leave It to Beaver,” interjected Brucher.

“Our Town,” “Virginia Woolf,” “Angels” all tell us something about undercurrents of American life.

“They are a profound mirror to our culture,” said Torres. “‘Angels’ is a kind of ‘Our Town’ of this era. It’s an insightful and poetic look into the way we live now, and ‘Virginia Woolf’ has a lot of those attributes.”

So why go through it? Why not switch channels?

“‘Virginia Woolf’ is a major American play,” said Brucher. “It’s a theatrical piece, and it puts us in touch with our culture and, maybe even more important, it forces us to question our assumptions. It’s critical of mainstream American life that is built on a fiction. But it’s also very hard on liberalism.”

An invitation to George and Martha’s? This is a party you don’t want to be at – and one you don’t want to miss.

Penobscot Theatre Company will present Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Wednesday-Sunday through Feb.15 at the Opera House at 131 Main St. in Bangor. The play contains adult content and language. For information, call 942-3333.

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