by Lynn on December 11, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

At The Storefront Theatre, 955 Bloor St. W., Toronto, Ont.

Written by Edward Albee
Directed by Tyrone Savage
Set, Lighting, Costumes by Jennifer Goodman
Sound by Paul Humphrey
Starring Claire Armstrong
Benjamin Blais
Janet-Laine Green
Booth Savage

A knockout of a production that goes like the wind, about a battling couple who love each other, and the guests they invite over for drinks and games.

The Story. This is Edward Albee’s celebrated, award-winning play of 1961-62. George and Martha, a couple of a certain age, have just staggered into their house. It’s 2 am after attending one of the regular Saturday night parties Martha’s father has hosted. He is the president of a small college. George is an associate professor there. George teaches history.

Their relationship is established for us instantly. Martha is a loud-mouth who brays at George at every opportunity. George seems meek and mild in comparison. He puts up with Martha’s outbursts and vulgarity. He is tempered and contained.

Unbeknownst to George, Martha has invited a young couple she met at the party, back to the house for drinks. George is irritated but resigned. The young couple are Nick, a professor in the biology department and his wife Honey, a mouse of a woman, as George describes her. Martha has her eye on Nick. He is trim, fit and willing to climb the ladder of success in that college by climbing the president’s daughter.

As mousey as Honey is, she has her own wilful story. Her daddy’s rich which means so is Honey. She trapped Nick into marrying her and both are paying for it in their own way.

During the evening we learn about George and Martha’s 21 year old son. They wrangle over him; who loves him most; how he shied away from Martha; how he might have been avoiding his father. It’s an explosive night of drinking, recriminations, accusations and ultimately love between George and Martha.

The Production. The set by Jennifer Goodman is spare and efficient. A couch stage right, an overstuffed chair and foot rest stage left. A bar up at the back with only an ice bucket resting on the top. When the play starts and with it the drinking, George reveals the bar when he separates the two portions of wood that come together to form the top. All the bottles of drink are underneath the top. There is the front door up slightly to the left and beside it a chime for the door.

Martha stumbles into the house followed by George, who is steadier. She is angry, drunk and short-tempered. She utters the famous line from the top of the show, looking around the room she spits out, “What a dump.” And then is bothered about what Bette Davis film the line comes from. George is no help. He’s just tired and wants to go to bed.

When the guests, Nick and Honey, arrive they are youthful, eager to please and engage with this older couple. And then they realize into what kind of surroundings they’ve been invited. George and Martha bait each other in a kind of sparring ritual. They include both Nick and Honey. George puts Nick on the defensive. Nick and George seem to have a meeting of the minds after that. Nick lowers his guard and confides some private information about his wife and their marriage only to have George betray that confidence later on. Martha comes on to Nick and he matches her. Honey drinks too much and becomes both physically and emotionally fragile.

There is one more secret that Martha shares with Honey and Honey then tells the others—George and Martha have an almost 21 year old son. Or do they? All through the night, they drink, argue, insult, fight, one-up each other, and play cold, clever mind games until the winner is declare. Nick and Honey are bruised by the truth of their own and they leave. George and Martha to carry on, but not as before.

This production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a gripping, knockout of a production that goes like the wind, thanks to director Tyrone Savage and his stellar cast. Savage maintains the delicate balance of the ever shifting centre of the power. Is it Martha who is ruling things? George? It’s interesting to see how those questions are always being balanced. Savage is mindful that Martha is the noisy, bullying aggressor and George is more manipulative psychologically.

As Martha, Janet-Laine Green doesn’t hold anything back when she makes her first stumbling entrance. When George accuses her of braying she replies, naturally in a loud, braying voice. Martha is always on the attack towards George. Initially I found Green falling into the trap of being loud and abrasive without variation and subtlety. Martha does have subtlety at the beginning too but Green chose to play it more broadly. She does find the insecurity and nuance in the Martha in the last Act, when George takes matters into his hands to settle the problems of make-believe vs reality once and for all. It’s moving and heartbreaking.

As George, Booth Savage is more laid-back, calm but with a hint of impatience. George believes in playing by the rules. Some things should not be mentioned and Martha mentioned them. George will take over and get things right.

This production in large part is a family affair. Booth Savage and Janet-Laine Green have been married for more than 30 years and know each other’s short-hand. The director, Tyrone Savage, is their son. A lot of knowing history there.

As Nick, Benjamin Blais brings a princely, boyish, slightly dangerous quality to the part. Nick knows how to manoeuvre his way to success. Nick is watchful as her sizes up what’s going on and how he can get it on with the boss’s daughter. As Honey, Claire Armstrong initially appears mousy, as George describes her, later giddy, fragile and wounded. Many things go over her head, but she knows when she is the butt of a joke. Armstrong brings an arsenal of nuance to this role, as do they all in many ways.

Comment. It’s too easy to say that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a verbal slug-fest between a long-married couple. In fact it’s a love story. George and Martha do love each other. Martha has a breathtaking speech in Act III describing how much George puts up with her bad behaviour because he loves her, and how she taunts him because of it. But she knows that he is the only person to make her happy. She is a damaged woman who wants her father’s favour or a kind word from him and doesn’t get it. That affects her in her marriage. George and Martha fight for fun. They fight for fun in front of Nick and Honey. Martha makes a fool of herself at her father’s party to get her father’s attention. It usually backfires.

Some couples play sports or chess, or bridge together. George and Martha argue. It’s bracing, brash, fearless and dangerous. It’s their fun. George sees that he must move them along in their marriage so he forces her to address their son.

In Albee’s life, he was adopted by a couple who apparently argued all the time. Is he writing about his own parents? His own life? In his own life his mother either threw him out of the house when he was 18 or he left at 18 because she could not abide that he was gay. In the play something happens to George and Martha’s son when he is 21 (close enough). Is Albee echoing his own leaving of his family? Interesting. When George announces to Martha that their ‘son is no more.’ The message is delivered, says George, by a Western Union telegram. When Albee left home he got a job at Western Union.

There are so many echoes in the play to Albee’s life. It’s always interesting to hear the echoes. In any case, Briefcase Productions and the spunky Red One Theatre Collective have produced a terrific production of this really difficult play.

Briefcase Productions in association with Red One Theatre Collective present:

Opened: Dec. 10, 2014
Closes: Dec. 21, 2014
Cast: 4; 2 men, 2 women
Running Time: 3 hours approx. for tickets.

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