By Michele Markarian
‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Written by Edward Albee. Directed by Scott Edmiston. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA, through February 12.
George (Steven Barkhimer) and Martha (Paula Plum), a middle-aged married couple with a fondness for alcohol, live on the campus of a college over which Martha’s father presides. George is a professor there, but Martha’s father has not nurtured his career the way he and Martha had hoped. One night, after a faculty party, Martha informs George that she has invited another couple over, a young professor and his wife, whom her father told her to be kind to. The fact that it’s 2:00am doesn’t deter anyone from acting on the invitation, and when Nick (Dan Whelton) and Honey (Erica Spyres) arrive and start to drink, the real fun begins.
Martha and George are enmeshed in a battle of deep acrimony and deep need. To keep one another engaged, they indulge themselves in a series of mind games, usually initiated by Martha, and willingly, if not begrudgingly, played along with by George. The games are not nice, they’re designed to hurt, with fun names like “Humiliate the Host”, “Get the Guests,” and “Hump the Hostess”. Nick is ambitious; his wife, a girl from his childhood named Honey, is intellectually subpar but comes from money. A potential friendship – which turns into a failed seduction – with the president’s daughter is not the worst thing that he can attract, which is presumably why he stays that night, despite his vicious hosts and drunken, passed out wife.
“Anybody who comes here ends up getting testy…” says George to his guests, and you can feel the electricity emanating from the stage, spilling over Janie E. Howland’s perfectly executed set, an academic’s living room, anchored in books, prominent liquor cabinet in the foreground. Both couples are childless, although Martha and George say they have a son, and Nick and Honey could still conceive. By the time George creates his last game, “Kill the Kid”, any pretense of Martha’s and his having a child and a normal marriage is over.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this play, but I have seen it a few times, and each version, depending on the cast and the dynamics between them, is different. Not that it’s an easy play to watch – George and Martha are complete narcissists, so caught up in performing for themselves and for their guests that they don’t even take the trouble, other than to refill glasses, to truly take an interest in those that they’ve invited. Barkhimer and Plum bring a childlike energy to their relationship, which is interesting and touching to watch – as actors, they seem to have a deep affinity for their characters as well as each other. Plum’s Martha, despite her propensity to humiliate her husband, seems genuinely dependent on him. When she confesses to Nick that George is the only man for her, you believe it. Barkhimer’s George is also a big baby, a child who didn’t get his way and is having one prolonged temper tantrum. What’s superb about Plum’s and Barkhimer’s performances is that despite the vitriol, you sense authentic love between them, which makes the piece work. Dan Whelton is excellent as the frustrated Nick, who doesn’t have the capacity to handle any of the games but tries. Erica Spyres is hilarious as Honey, while giving her depth and ferocity.
But it’s not all tension and depravity. Director Scott Edmiston is able to bring out the humor in the play, which playwright Albee complained was missing from the film version. There are many funny moments – Plum and Barkhimer deliver some wonderfully wry zingers, and Spyres has a moment as a bunny rabbit behind the couch that was laugh out loud hilarious. At three hours, with two intermissions, this is a long show, but honestly, you won’t feel it, it’s so riveting. And at the end, you can go back to your happier life, knowing it could be a whole lot worse. For more information, go to: http://www.lyricstage.com/productions/production.cfm?ID=122