Edward Albee’s biting social commentary hits its audience with full force in Bear and Co’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? directed by Ian Farthing. The dark comedy brings the infamous, unsparing duo of George and Martha to life. This darkly comedic story may be a classic piece of Americana, yet this production brings a fresh interpretation to this evening-gone-wrong. What starts out as a fairly naturalistic set-up quickly spirals into the realm of the psychological. The characters are tossed into an existential mess, fueled by personal stagnation and alcohol, that none of them can leave.
George, a history professor, and his wife Martha, the daughter of the college’s president, return from a party and the barrage of high-brow insults begins even as the play opens. Though it’s already 2 a.m., Martha announces the imminent arrival of two guests. Nick and Honey – a young professor, new to the college, and his wife—are unassuming and out of place in George and Martha’s den of despair. But the volley of cruelty has just begun and Nick and Honey have no idea what they’re up for.
Director Farthing makes no illusions of the fact that these characters are trapped in a nightmarish metaphor. David Magladry’s set design is a definite tribute to this fact, reminding the audience to not get trapped in the realm of realism. The stage is a stripped-down version of a living room, where black furniture and un-adorned black shelves gives the illusion of a living room. Windows, doorways, and paintings hang empty, sending the physical room into the realm of illusion. The only painting that is depicted is a clue: The abstract, 3-dimentional black painting, spattered in white drops, is a birds-eye view replica of the stage. The stage itself is surrounded by the same white drops. We are starring into the gapping mouth of a piece of art (within the play, George describes the art as a depiction of Martha’s mind).
It’s the kind of play where we don’t know whether it’s safe to laugh, though Albee’s script undoubtedly has us in its grips. George and Martha both drip with arrested development, volatility and cunning, to the credit of actors Paul Rainville and Rachel Eugster. Rainville as George is an incredible force, finding a version of George that manages to appear unassuming and then completely calculating. Eugster, too, is relentless in the best possible way. There is a forcefulness in her approach to the script that feels heavy-handed, particularly in her monologues. Thoughts blur together without pause, at times breaking the illusion of the character.
Actor Cory Thibert as the young biology professor, Nick, is a pleasant surprise. Thibert and Rainville have some demanding sparring matches, and Thibert’s Nick meets Rainville’s George punch for punch. His steadfast demeanor and humourless tone are the perfect counterpart to George’s volatility.
Where George, Martha and even the Nick become consumed in the cruel, intellectual sparring initiated by George and Martha, Honey is purely an object of that cruelty—too drunk and too naïve to see that she is the target of one of George’s most sinister game, “Get the Guests”. She is a misfit in Albee’s script, and actor Grace Gordon squeezes the life out of her naivety. Gordon over-physicalizes the character to the point of distraction, turning Honey into a clown. Gordon’s approach to the character doesn’t fit the stage-world, and in fact, makes it difficult to find pity for the woman.
The final scene is the culmination of all the hard work that has gone into the play, and it leaves its audience gutted. If this final moment between George and Martha can be understood as the measure of the play’s success, there is no question that this production worked.
With so much pretense masked by their downright cruelty, the refreshing (albeit heartbreaking) final note of this play between George and Martha will leave you with much to mull through as you plod your way home. It’s the kind of bearing of the human soul that we hope to find at the theatre, and what unexpected characters to find it through.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf plays at The Gladstone Theatre, 210 Gladstone Ave, until April 16.
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by Ian Farthing
Rachel Eugster as Martha
Paul Rainville as George
Grace Gordon as Honey
Cory Thibert as Nick
Stage manager – Jane Vanstone Osborn
Costumes – Vanessa Imeson
Lighting and Set Design – David Magladry
Composer and Sound Design – Melissa Morris
Producer – Eleanor Crowder