Personally, I'm not all that frightened of Virginia Woolf. What does scare the crap out of me is the quartet of dysfunctional, alienated weirdoes who binge drink their way through Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The Fusion Theatre Company is currently staging a production of Albee's iconic American masterpiece at the Cell Theatre. Directed by Jacqueline Reid, this version, I'm happy to report, is as hilarious as it is terrifying.
Long after midnight, a washed-up history professor named George (William Sterchi) stumbles home drunk from a faculty party with his obnoxious wife, Martha (Richard Move), who's equally sloshed. As they continue to bicker and binge, Martha informs a shocked and irritable George that guests are about to arrive.
Nick (Ross Kelly), a biology professor, and Honey (Rebecca Gibel), a mousy nitwit, are the unfortunate victims. Over the course of the next several hours, George and Martha douse the younger couple, and themselves, in more alcohol, while exposing them to the nastiness of their profoundly screwed-up marriage, drudging up some horrifying secrets in the process. We also soon learn that Nick and Honey suffer from their own less serious but quite unpleasant marital difficulties. Engines fueled by a couple gallons of gin, bourbon and brandy, the unpleasant situation quickly degenerates into a scene of pure domestic hell.
Don't let this description repel you. This play is very funny, even if its humor is mostly mean-spirited and cynical.
The best thing about Fusion's production is the peculiar but brilliant casting. Reid brought in New York actor Richard Move to play the role of the domineering, back-biting Martha. You should know that Move is a burly man who towers at least seven feet tall. With his stubbled chin, horrid bleached hair, fake tits and slurry, drunken swagger, Move brings a perfect funky eroticism to the mix, heightening and highlighting the hilarious surreality of Albee's caustic dialogue.
In an inspired application of one of the golden rules of comedy, Move's gargantuan stature makes William Sterchi seem all the tinier. Beside his giant rampaging wife, George looks like he's four feet tall, if that. One of the things that makes this production so enjoyable is that the two performers are utterly unconvincing as a realistic married couple, but the unbelievability of their pairing just makes this production even funnier.
A long-time veteran of local theater and film, Sterchi is always reliably good, and in Fusion's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I've never seen him perform better. Time after time, he brings an ingenious, unexpected, idiosyncratic twist to Albee's lines.
The characters Nick and Honey are often just props, providing useful punching bags for George and Martha to verbally pummel during those rare but lively moments when they aren't pummeling each other. Ross Kelly is properly subdued and befuddled as Nick. In the role of Honey, Rebecca Gibel might seem a little too cutesy-pie for a character who's supposed to be mousy and "slim-hipped," but she gets a lot of comedic mileage out playing a prissy, drunken bubblehead.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a loud play—meaning there's an awful lot of yelling. Thankfully, these players don't yell merely to cover up a lack of acting skills. All four actors are sharp and effective. This polished professional production is also aided greatly by a simple, frumpy scenic design created by Emmy Award winner Charles Clute.
Albee won the Pulitzer Prize for three of his plays. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was not one of them. Even so, most critics believe this play is Albee's finest achievement, and it's easy to see why. No sharper black wit can be found in American theater, and this cast and crew wield that wit with the precision of brain surgeons.