Thalian Association’s summer series at the Red Barn Theatre is an unqualified success. First, they hosted the phenomenal Billie Holiday show, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” and now they’re putting on a wonderful production of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Albee is a complicated playwright for Americans. In many ways he embodies the discontent and frustration of post-war America and the detente of the Cold War. Though he has never fit comfortably into any mold or school of thought, even when receiving awards for his work, he eschews attempts at labels (“I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay.”). Somewhere in the midst of confusion and human fallibility he manages to bring forth very real and frightening aspects of the human psyche—aspects and survival strategies that many of us would rather pretend we didn’t employ. Somehow Albee’s depiction is so mesmerizing we keep coming back for more. Since 1962 “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” has fascinated, horrified and captivated audiences. Thalian’s current production succeeds on all three counts.
Meet George (Ron Hasson) and Martha (Katherine Vernon), a middle-aged faculty couple at a small New England college in the early ‘60s. (Notice the nice little allusion to the Washingtons that Albee threw in there? Yep, the whole show is like that—you really have to pay attention to mine the gems.) This couple has been together for a very long time, and they embark upon shorthand communication that appears to say one thing, but communicates something else actually. Vernon and Hasson have wonderful body language between them to underscore the script and really sell that point.
It is well past midnight, and the couple has just returned from a faculty party. Martha announces she invited the new hire and his wife for drinks. Enter Nick (Hal Cosec) and Honey (Maria Katsadorous). At the begining of their adult lives, and Nick’s professional career, the couple is full of promise and desperate to make a good impression on the faculty, especially Martha (the president’s daughter). With very little fanfare they find themselves launched into the twisted, desperate world of George and Martha, to be used as playthings in the couple’s newest game with each other. On your marks, get set … Go!
Cosec and Katsadorous act out their roles as if genuinely baffled by the turn of events. Is it hard to see Cosec as a handsome, charming, renaissance man—the athlete and scientist rolled into one? No, not at all. The man has charisma for days, coupled with his boyish good looks and sly smile. His Nick has clearly played the game of life by the rules and received honors and prizes, including a rich, beautiful, young wife.
Katsadorous gives us a depiction of Honey as a lovely, innocent, young woman who has perfected the art of keeping her secrets and everyone else’s. Though Martha discounts her early on, falling for the veneer that Honey wears, it is Honey who sees through the façade long before anyone else. I have seen productions where Honey was played as a stupid airhead, but I like Katsadorous’ choice better; it deepens the work and intensifies the script. One has to wonder what deeper secret she is keeping (even more awful than the one revealed in Act II)? Her work with Cosec is really strong; they have the easy comfort of people who have built a lifetime of trust, from childhood even. It’s a dependence, it’s a certainty, and when it is shattered, it is physically shocking to both of them.
Ben Fancy has built a really lovely set for the show, complete with sconces and built-in bookcases. As befits a university professor’s home, the place is overflowing with books (even under the sofa and chairs). A genteel-down-at-heal-feel permeates the space—greater expectations that have not been achieved. It’s a good mirror for the inner world of George and Martha. And that is the heart of the show: the world these people manifest. The performances by Vernon and Hasson are nuanced, layered and powerful. It’s a four-person script, so everyone has to be present in every moment, but from Martha and George, especially, the moment-to-moment intensity must be real and palpable. Vernon and Hasson exceed expectations.
Director Anthony Lawson is blessed with a talented, hardworking cast. Among his many strengths as a director are a strong eye and a tuned ear. By a strong eye, I mean his blocking really paints the picture of shifting allegiances within the script. Audiences who follow closely can see the energy strengthen and dissolve between the characters based upon where they are in relation to each other.
The ear is the other piece: This is a show with a specific rhythm. If the cadence isn’t there, it won’t work. In the film, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, a strong series of sound effects crescendo when George talks about the car wreck. Sound and rhythm are essential to this show, and between Lawson and the cast, they have nailed it. If you know Lawson’s work, that’s not surprising; music and sound are key tools in his arsenal. In any show he directs, one should listen to the soundtrack, beginning with the pre-show music, very carefully. In this case, it started with The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” to set the tone for the evening.
This is a tough show that comes with a lot of expectations. Don’t expect a rehashing of the movie. This production is better! It puts more emphasis on the script and the subtlety of the struggles between the four actors onstage, and it truly utilizes Nick and Honey as mirrors for George and Martha. The performances are incredible. For a night of artistic merit, this is a winner.