By Richard Campbell
For many Americans their primary experience with this classic play is the 1966 Mike Nichols directed film version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. With the passing of Edward Albee this past fall, the Lyric’s Artistic Director, Spiro Veloudos’ decision to entreat director Scott Edmiston to stage this landmark renewal is certainly timely. Staged with masterful fluidity by Edmiston in a way that conjures up vivid stage pictures this production elevates the story with remarkable economy, not normally associated with this pugilistic late night drinking saga.
A great deal of the light revealed in this production should be attributed to Paula Plum’s heroic, fresh interpretation of Martha- a college professors’ wife whose emotional roller coaster sets a standard for ribald humor, jovial manipulation, vitriolic anger, and expressive loneliness. Plum’s many Sixties comedic gestural displays of ardent femininity, combined with sorrowful despair, hold the audience fairly spellbound.
Steven Barkhimer is no slouch in his role of the soft sweater padded professor George, whose meanness is more of a cunning intellectual game that reveals his wounded masochism. Their moments of appeasement for the continuance of the game, cement the chilling consequences of their love-hate relationship. As they draw their innocent post-faculty-party house guests, (Nick and Honey) into a cat and mouse psychodrama loaded with timely modern themes and indiscreet tales; one is reminded how many contemporary playwrights are one note Charlies by comparison.
This is a monster play with delightful rich verbiage that cascades images and thoughts to mind in racing waterfalls. As a vestige of that work hard, play hard, take no prisoners World War II generation, Virginia Wolf is an icon of American theater for good reason.
Balancing the deceptive economy of the story is a lush narrative that delves deep into the modern American psyche exploring a vast set of themes, From alienation of societal demands, the sanctity of marriage, to sexual dominance of male centered culture, the mistaken notion of fragile femininity, master race eugenics, masks of social conformity, the role of childhood in adult power, and perhaps most importantly: the illusion of finding happiness after sorrow and loss. Warning: the heart is writ large and severely wounded.
The central conceit is that the prototypical young academic couple, yearning for acceptance as new members of the university community, understand that Martha’s invitation to after party drinks could be critical to Nick’s future. She being the daughter of the college president, who despite being married to a failed terminal associate history professor George, eclipses his academic impotence with her beguiling street smarts and sexual cattiness. Over the years I’ve often wondered why Nick, the earnest biology professor, and Honey, his opaque wife, don’t bolt from the George and Martha’s lair a little earlier in the evening. But their evolution is emblematic of the loss of innocence in America during the 1960’s- a nation catapulted into a dehumanized future we know all too well.
As the drinks are served, the dominant / recessive relationship between the two couples involves some pretty heavy ensemble work, with Edmiston cleverly pulling out tensions. In Erica Spyres portrayal of Honey, we see a subtle mirror wide-eyed aghast mid-west sensibility floating across her face after being shocked into East Coast academic degeneration. Her interior world plays out with a cinematic sensitivity that would not work on bigger stages-but works well up close and personal in the cozy Lyric. She and Dan Whelton’s better than earnest- yet still very boyishly virile Nick- are both fulcrum and foil to the dark imaginings of George and Martha.
Whelton mixes a taut innocent sensibility with the spring loaded testosterone reaction to Georges’ constant goading about the young biologist’s eugenic possibilities- the picture of an idealistic academic not yet jaded by the system. In a society increasingly concerned with nothing but monetary value defined through technological ability, Nick and Honey harken back to a simpler time indeed.
A sign of an effective stage play is when time passes fast, and for a three-hour production, this show moves at breath taking speed. The production values for this show are right on: from the carefully dated 60’s clothing by Charles Shoonmaker, to the crooked charm of bookcase filled teal and cream academic bungalow set created by Janie Howland, and jewel like lighting by Karen Perlow, there is a delicate intricacy that plays upon our emotions.
The combined result is the restoration of a time piece, a playwright’s play, into our century with extraordinary insight. For those who rarely attend the theater, and veteran theater goers alike, this play reminds us of the essence of live drama.