I saw my favorite play in Creation this past Sunday, Edward Albee’s 1962 blood rite Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I’m still afraid of this play, have been ever since I saw it at age 14 — too young to take it all in, thank God. Woolf’s half-life is twice a thousand years, and while its vaunted “shocks” are perhaps no longer so shocking, its livid brutality is undiminished.
Dangerously bad marriages don’t give us much pause nowadays, nor does the public airing of dirty laundry. What hits us where we live isn’t what’s being said, over the course of the world’s longest, most hellish nightcap, by Albee’s two sets of tipsy couples — George and Martha, a middle-aged faculty club Punch and Judy show stuck in a New England college town, and Nick and Honey, the hapless (though hardly blameless) young victims of their venomous hospitality. It’s how it’s delivered, and to whom, and with how many pound feet of rough torque. In Albee, humanism and sadism don’t vie for supremacy — they’re conjoined twins. (His heroes are cruel to be kind … kind of.) And nowhere do these forces convect with more violence than in the person of Tracy Letts, the George to the great Amy Morton’s Martha, currently commanding in Steppenwolf’s latest take on the Albee classic. (And a classic it most certainly is — a work just as durable and plastic as anything from the top-shelf of O’Neill or the Golden Age of Miller/Williams.)
The production — directed with guts and precision and two-for-flinching honesty by the brass-knuckled wonder Pam Mackinnon (Clybourne Park) — has transferred to Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, and I can only hope that it will hop a northbound Amtrak sometime soon. (If a theater can’t be found to accommodate it, let’s consider building one.) Letts, best known in New York for writing the Pulitzer Prize–winning August: Osage County and the flaying genre diorama Bug, is also an actor of impressive range. Anyone who caught his delicate performance as ailing, failing Kenneth Tynan in Orson’s Shadow a few years ago probably won’t recognize him here. They may not immediately recognize the part he’s playing, either, so fundamentally has he transformed it. (He’s not the only one transforming: Albee seems to have made at least one significant, if slightly puzzling change to his ’62 text. I’ll let y’all find it yourselves–and any others I may have missed.)
Somewhere along the line, we all got it in our heads that George — the outwardly mousy, inwardly seething history professor who’s married to blowsy, “braying” Martha, has no original ferocity, no power to intimidate, until he’s cornered. (Actors from Richard Burton to Bill Irwin bear some responsibility for this — and, P.S., it’s a perfectly legitimate interpretation.) Letts, on the other hand, turns his round-shouldered, slightly hunched bulk into a kind of rolling siege weapon. He grips his unlit pipe like a snubnose .38. This George, when he mauls Martha in a grotesquely overdone make-out, is a credible threat, not an imp. “I don’t have a paunch,” he informs his unfortunate, asymmetrically vapid house guest/victim Nick (Madison Dirks, excellent, restrained). “What I’ve got … I’ve got this little distension below the belt. But it’s hard. It’s not soft flesh.” You bet your pillowy ass it isn’t. I remember fearing for Bill Irwin’s safety at the hands of Kathleen Turner, in the last Woolf to hit town; with Letts and Morton, my concern flowed in the opposite direction.
Not that she can’t hold her own. Morton clues into Martha’s darkest, DNA-level secret: That she married a man superficially disinclined to cruelty, to violence, to flagellation, yet possessed of a gift for it, a gift she alone can unlock. “My arm has gotten tired whipping you,” she tells George, yet it’s clear that she bears plenty of stripes herself. Metaphysically or literally, she’s a battered person, and she brings that damage into every scene. Together, they shotgun Albee’s glorious language back and forth with an ease that feels not simply spontaneous (that would be too easy), but written into their very biology. They don’t fall into the common Woolf trap of end-zone dancing when individual points are scored; they don’t take the Albee’s “game” motif too literally. These are people who’ve played this match, or something like it, time and again, and their grapplings have a practiced feel to them — they really know each other’s throws, which makes their escalations feel even more surprising, even, it seems, to them. (The canary in the mineshaft is simpering, suffering Honey, the smallest dog in this fight. Carrie Coon, an actress to watch, embraces and ennobles one of theater’s greatest drunk roles — I’ve never felt more kinship with poor, besotted, badly married Honey.)
There’s more to say, much more, but I think I’ll wait until it comes to New York. Please, let it come. Sure, we had another Woolf at the door not six years ago, but who cares? Redundancy clearly isn’t a problem on this island. Sure, it’s a risk, but, paraphrasing George, I ask the producers to bring this superb show to the saddest of all points–to the point where there is something to lose. And a lot for New York theatergoers to gain.