Actor Paul Rainville Triumphs in Virginia Woolf — But The Production Is Out Of Whack

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

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Photo Barb Gray

It’s always rewarding to watch a gifted actor like Paul Rainville
exert his effortless authority on stage.It is, to begin with, a matter of presence — and Rainville always has that in spades. But beyond that, there’s the way he will inhabit and define a character — an approach that well goes beyond mere technical expertise.
Currently at the Gladstone, he’s delivering a fascinating portrayal of George — the middle-aged academic failure who provides one half of the marital battleground that comprises Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? There are surprises in what he does here. There are few glimpses of the passive-aggressive husband who often surfaces in productions of Edward Albee’s 1962 play. This George, for all his vulnerabilities, never seems that much of a victim to the vicious verbal taunting of his wife Martha, a booze-soaked harridan whose mainform of recreation amidst the shambles of a disappointing life is to keep tearing the scabs off an increasingly scarred relationship. In the world of 34-year-old Edward Albee, indulging in this kind of domestic warfare fulfilled his vision of how an awful relationship might be sustained: behave abominably enough to force retaliation from the other side and you achieve some manner of real human contact no matter how emotionally bruising the consequences.

The play reflects a sour view of traditional marriage — or, at the very least, a questioning of the possibility of any kind of lasting, fulfilling relationship. But where is Albee really coming from? More than 50 years ago, Nathan Cohen, the Toronto Star’s outspoken theatre critic, had little patience for Albee’s scorched-earth vision of marriage and dismissed Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? as a grotesque homosexual fantasy. But are things ever that simple with this dramatist?

Virginia Woolf may have been Albee’s biggest commercial success, and it may have revealed fewer mysteries at its core than A Delicate Balance or The Zoo Story or Tiny Alice. But mysteries still linger. Indeed, over the years Albee himself has nurtured them — for example in his coy responses to speculation that the play was originally written to be perfumed by an all-male cast. There’s also the fact of Albee’s adoption and the alienation he felt as a child, and how his personal history fed into the script’s most controversial aspect — its wrenching climactic revelation about the unseen 21-year-old son we begin hearing about as the play unfolds. But perhaps, when all is said and done, it’s best to accept Albee’s most straightforward statement about the play — that it deals with the struggle between illusion and reality.

In his particular universe, that means lies and self-deception — and the victimization that can result. Fertile dramatic territory, this, especially when George and Martha are not only preying on each other but on the young faculty
couple who have been invited back for drinks after a college event. Eric Farthing’s production at the Gladstone maintains the play’s emotional momentum and is adept at orchestrating the vicious humor of George and Martha’s ping-pong game of humiliation, a game that will inevitably drag in Nick, an earnest new faculty member, and his simpering wife, Honey. Both prove worthy victims, adjuncts to a booze-soaked evening of retribution, recrimination and revelation — a
long night’s journey into a dubious dawn. The skeletal trappings of David Magladry’s semi-expressionist set might provide a portal for a descent into total nightmare, were it not for the fact that what we’re experiencing among these four characters can seem so corrosively alive. The evening is laced with moments of malignant humor that can force uncomfortable laughter from an audience — and that’s a testament to its frequent power. The production also excels in managing the “sound” of the play. Consider Paul Rainville’s masterful use of silence to create unease. A further highlight is a skillfully executed outburst of fugal fantasy so frantic that it threatens to fragment any remaining moral certainties into dust and — while also earning cast members high marks for their ensemble abilities.

But this new Ottawa revival fails to understand that Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? can better preserve its impact if kept as a period piece. The moment when a remote is casually used to produce the sound of dance music on the stereo doesn’t synch with a world in which Western Union telegrams are still being delivered at the door. Furthermore, despite its many dramatically gripping moments, the production lacks balance.
Part of the problem, oddly enough, lies with the force and conviction of Rainville’s performance as George. It’s a particularly unsettling reading of this character: there’s a shark lurking behind the sporty black turtleneck and well-worn jacket, and robust bonhomie. Tinges of malice can permeate even those more benign moments of humor. As for
George’s outbursts of rage — well, they carry the suggestion of something even more dangerous being kept in reserve.
Is Rainville’s George too strong a presence? Is it the sort of performance that can throw the whole evening out of whack? The answer should be no — but that’s predicated on strong casting across the board — particularly with a Martha capable of meeting him head-on. So what do we get?
Well, Cory Thibert’s thoughtfully conceived Nick manages to hold his own in a performance that shows not only this character’s opportunism and vulnerability, but also glimmerings of moral shame. The character
of wife Honey — probably Albee’s cruelest piece of writing — has been assigned here to Grace Gordon who has the right measure of vacuous dopiness and helplessness in her performance. As written, Honey is the least of the characters in the play, a young wife who is not only out of her depth but who, in the interests of malicious comedy, is
required to keep throwing up and who is subjected to the evening’s nastiest act of humiliation. That Gordon manages to extract pathos out of this latter moment is but one example to her success in turning the character of Honey into something more than just a mean-minded cliché.

That leaves us with Martha, a character who may ultimately lose the battle but who must prove to be George’s match up to the play’s emotionally devastating conclusion. It’s a role that has seized the imaginations and burnished the reputations of countless actresses — beginning with Uta Hagen and Kate Reid in the original Broadway production and later with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Martha Henry. At the Gladstone, Rachel Eugster seems attentive to the
requirements of the character — both her outer venom and her inner turmoil — but she’s not there yet. She’s not playing to her undoubted strengths as an actress or focusing on the play’s real dramatic needs. Stylistically, she’s not quite in harmony with other cast members. The verbal abuse can fly out like bullets — but that doesn’t mean she’s
making connections in which we can believe. A penchant for striking postures and making her dialogue sound like pronouncements to the audience is not really the way to go. Martha deserves better than that. So does the play.

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
By Edward Albee
A Bear and Co. Production
Gladstone Theatre to April 16
Director: Ian Farhing
Costumes: Vanessa Imeson
Set and Lighting: David Magladry
Composer and Sound Design: Melissa Morris
Martha: Rachel Eugster
George: Paul Rainville
Honey: Grace Gordon
Nick: Cory Thibert


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