Opening Nights: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St. (Seattle Center), 443-2222, $15–$80. Runs Wed.–Sun. Ends May 18.

It’s even odds whether more entrails were strewn on the floor of Rome’s Colosseum or in the den of George and Martha’s home. Either way, the bill of fare is blood sport as entertainment, and director Braden Abraham’s production takes Edward Albee’s circular firing-squad masterwork to Olympian heights and Stygian depths.

The 1962 play is a landmark stage dissection of the American family, in which Albee demonstrates how it’s possible to rip flesh from bone and finally destroy a person with nothing more than verbal skills, a few marital secrets, and the firm conviction that your opponent is beneath contempt. Martha (Pamela Reed) and George (R. Hamilton Wright) hold each other responsible for ruining their lives. She’s a university president’s daughter who’s taken to drink; he’s the academic who’s lacked sufficient drive or charisma to move up the campus career ladder. She calls him an unambitious eunuch. He calls her an emasculating harpy. You get the idea. Little remains of their onetime compatibility other than drinking and a sadistic game of trust. The question Albee keeps putting on the table is this: What will happen when I reveal your most closely guarded flaws to complete strangers? George and Martha are each daring the other to end their marriage—or raise the stakes with another toxic revelation. It’s a perverse game that can be played only if they remain in the same room, with campus couple Nick (Aaron Blakely) and Honey (Amy Hill) as their reluctant audience.

Watching Reed and Wright lay into each another for three hours (with two intermissions) resembles nothing so much as a bullfight where only two matadors show up. As Abraham strategically directs them, Reed and Wright teeter between sympathetic characters and utter churls, much to the bewilderment of their guests—who are always looking for but never finding a safe place to land. Eventually, though, Nick has his naive idealism peeled back to reveal nothing more than naked avarice, and Honey, first appearing vapid and needy, finally shows a dark, manipulative side. Both learn from their masters.

Albee’s play is an all-you-can-eat buffet for performers, and these veterans bring the necessary skill and gravitas. Matthew Smucker’s set is a winning hodgepodge of suburban detritus; but, truth be told, you could stage Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a cage match inside a chain-link fence. Much of what you’ll see is horrifying, but it’s also completely irresistible.

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