Lakeside Community Theatre
Directed by Amanda Carson Green
Set Design - Benjamin Keegan Arnold and Amanda Carson Green
Lighting Design - Alex Pacheco
Costume Design - Amanda Carson Green
Sound Design - Victoria Irvine
Props Design - Douglas Gill, Benjamin Keegan Arnold,
Victoria Irvine, Amanda Carson Green
Denna Dunn - Martha
David J. Wallis - George
Laura L. Watson - Honey
Alejandro Sandoval II - Nick
Reviewed Performance 8/18/2012
Reviewed by Kristy Blackmon, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
When Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? premiered to New York audiences in 1962, it stood in stark contrast to that year's biggest Broadway musical smash, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Chubby Checkers' hit single and new international dance craze "The Twist", and the debut of The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson on NBC. Edward Albee's graphic and controversial portrayal of the hypocrisy and venom hidden behind the closed doors of America's picture perfect upper middle class marriages won the 1963 Tony Award for Best Play, Best Director to Alan Schneider, Best Actor to Arthur Hill as George, and Best Actress to Uta Hagen as Martha.
It was selected by the Pulitzer Prize Nominating Committee for the 1963 Drama Pulitzer, but due to the controversy surrounding the play's obscenity and sexual content, the Pulitzer board declined to award the prize that year. The 1966 film adaptation starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton garnered an Academy Award nomination in every eligible category - thirteen in all - though it only won in five categories, including Best Actress for Taylor as Martha and Best Supporting Actress for Sandy Dennis as Honey. The play was revived in 2005 with Kathleen Turner as Martha and Bill Irwin as George, for which he won that year's Best Actor Tony Award, and is undergoing at present another revival, set to open on October 13th, 2012 on Broadway, fifty years to the day from its original debut.
To say the play is ambitious, therefore, is putting it mildly. The show explores the disaster that results from the failure of a married couple's refusal to face the hard facts of life in a society where nothing turns out to be what it promised to be. They live in a world of half-truths and illusion where there has ceased to be a clearly defined line between playing games and real life. It's an alcohol-soaked, failure-riddled relationship, remarkable in its dysfunction and gin consumption even for the 1960s, and both the stage play and the film were heavily censored and censured for vulgar language and portrayal of se*uality.
It's a heartbreaking show when done well and a farce that quickly shows the amateur nature of many groups that are simply not capable of living up to the high demands of the script when done badly. I was more than a little apprehensive when I learned that Lakeside Community Theater in The Colony had decided to tackle it. On the one hand, I thought, Lakeside was to be lauded for even attempting such a project. On the other, I braced myself for three acts (and three hours) of over the top performances of one of the most revered stage plays from one of America's most acclaimed modern playwrights.
I was absolutely thrilled to have my snobbish expectations thrown in my face. Lakeside's production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is excellent.
Director Amanda Carson Green used every shortcoming of the performance space - and there were many - to the show's advantage. Working with Set Designer Benjamin Keegan Arnold, the Board of LCT, and the cast and crew of the show, she transformed a claustrophobic, dated space in a tiny building set behind the Denton County Governmental Offices building into a legitimate black box theater by removing the dropped faux ceiling and expanding the wings. New LED lights were installed, which are light enough to be moved and adjusted easily and, perhaps more important for such a small space, give off almost no heat. The front row of seats is on the same level as the stage and the proximity of the actors to the audience works astoundingly well for this show. The lack of proscenium adds to the audience's sense of voyeuristic discomfort by giving the illusion that the audience is sitting practically in the living room of the home in which all of the action takes place. It's a staging that is remarkably suited to this show.
Arnold's and Carson Green's set design is meticulous, with no continuity slips in the 1960s decor. The placement of the audience inside the house allows for a close inspection of the props and set, and their attention to detail is unfailing. The set becomes almost a fifth character; details such as book titles and photographs reveal much about the inner workings of the couple who live there. The analog clock on the wall is always set at the correct time, the level of liquor in the decanters descends as the four characters drink their way through the narrative, and the groupings of couches and chairs add to the moments of symbolic separation of different parties at different points in the staging.
Appropriately, the set is the one technical element that draws attention to itself. There is little in the way of sound: Designer Victoria Irvine provides a doorbell here, a chime there, and a few brief moments of dance music. Likewise, Alex Pacheco's lighting design remains simple throughout. A single lamp onstage and a warm but appropriately toned down level of light from the rails give the set a deceptively homey feel, with only the slow but steady brightening of light behind the sheers of the one window to indicate dawn's approach lending any change at all to the setting.
Carson Green wisely adapted the technical elements to the space and the intention of drawing the audience into the action. Her technical choices are dead on. However, as Costume Designer, she has some hits and misses. Though the turquoise cocktail dress Martha originally appears in is appropriately tight in all the wrong places and occasionally shows a bit of lacy undergarments, she regretfully changes into a rather revolting and somewhat indescribable outfit that is supposed to be sexy, a distracting choice. Honey's costume is perfect: her petticoat is perfectly puffed, her seams are perfectly aligned, and it all perfectly captures her obsession with appearances. The men's suits are unremarkable, but as mid-century university professors, they're supposed to be, and as the evening progresses, their dishevelment provides some amusing moments.
The play opens with David J. Wallis as George and Dena Dunn as Martha bickering in a seemingly benign way common to many couples married for twenty-three years. The discussion quickly devolves into petty sniping as Martha tells George he makes her want to puke, George calls Martha a cocker spaniel who chews her ice cubes, and the insults are off and running, culminating in Martha's yelling a pointed two word obscenity to George just as he opens the door to admit their after-party guests: new professor Nick, and his wife, who is only ever referred to as Honey, played by Alejandro Sandoval II and Laura L. Watson.
This first scene provides the audience with the information they need to prepare for the onslaught of drunken emotional brutality that follows. The actors, perhaps caught up in the endorphin rush that often accompanies the start of a show, trip a little over the lines as they settle into the speech rhythms of Albee's extremely demanding dialogue, but this can be explained away by the obvious inebriation of the characters. Indeed, as the show progresses and all four characters sink from tipsy to downright disgustingly drunk, it actually helps add to the believability, keeping the rapid back and forth exchanges from the sort of thing that exists only in Aaron Sorkin's world. All four actors are awkward as they settle into their roles, with Dunn's performance being the first to hit its stride and never again waver.
Wallis' booming voice is probably perfectly suited to a larger, proscenium theater, but it was overpowering in this small space and caused several audience members to visibly cringe from his sheer volume at multiple points in the show. Both Wallis and Dunn are kept from a truly believable connection with their characters and the audience due to an excess of unnecessary "busy work" blocking such as fluffing innumerable pillows and testing out every available seating option multiple times, especially in the beginning of first act.
They also both inexplicably deliver speeches to the audience instead of the other characters throughout the show; but where Dunn's variations in volume, emotional intensity, and incredibly evocative facial expressions alleviate the awkwardness of this somewhat, Wallis' repetitive and constant movement combined with his persistent high emotional intensity is a little exhausting to watch. Though a talented actor who manages to not be dominated by an extremely challenging role, Wallis lacks the depth of Dunn.
It isn't just his volume that never drops below a six or seven, but his emotional pique as well. Otherwise, his performance has little to criticize, and the pivotal themes are clearly delivered. This is a couple who can no longer communicate with anything but hatred, and who no longer speak in anything but insults. Not only do the individual actors have to be strong, but their connection has to be unmistakable. Wallis' and Dunn's repartee seem born of two decades of marriage.
Some of the barbs and taunts feel as though they have been said a hundred times before Nick and Honey are plunged into the acidic atmosphere of the household almost the second they walk in the door as their attempts at polite small talk are steamrolled by the older couple's need to insult one another. Convincing the audience that they would actually stay long enough to put their coats back on before hightailing it out of this house of hate is one of the most challenging moments in the play for Nick and Honey, and Sandoval and Watson don't quite pull it off, leaving the impression that if it weren't for the script, their characters would have no reason to stay.
Nick and Honey could be earlier versions of George and Martha, before bitterness and failure turned their marriage into a vicious battleground. As the play progresses and the gin, bourbon, brandy, and scotch reserves are rapidly depleted, they descend to the level of their hosts and seem to adopt alternate personalities with few moral guidelines, though they have not yet had time to blaze the immense trail of collateral damage that the older couple has left in their wake.
Watson has a few shining moments in her portrayal of Honey, namely when she reveals a bloodthirsty streak as the other three characters engage in a physical struggle while she bounces on the couch chanting, "Violence! Violence!" However, she comes across at times as merely very simple rather than drunk and naive. In a space that brings actors and audience so close together, every gesture, every smile, every nod is witnessed. Watson, playing to the stereotype of a Donna Reed housewife determined to remain pleasant no matter what, seems at times to have just checked out. When she's present, though, her performance has a quiet power that demands contemplation.
Sandoval seems transformed between the first two acts. Though there are moments in Act I when the script seems to be wearing him rather than the other way around, by Act II his performance challenges that of Dunn in terms of immersion into character, no easy feat. Even more impressive, it has a noticeable effect on the other characters, elevating both Wallis' and Watson's performance. Sandoval plays Nick with just the right amount of fascination with his hosts and weariness of them, and the disgust he feels toward not only George and Martha but also toward himself for becoming an active player in their twisted games is nearly palpable. By the end of the show, it is clear that Nick and Honey are warnings for us all. The audience is left to wonder, if this perfect couple is so easily corrupted, how solid our own perceptions of self are.
Despite the breathtaking amount of bitterness, anger, and betrayal in the show, Carson Green's technical choices masterfully manage to keep the performance from slipping into melodrama with the help of all four actors, most especially Dunn and Sandoval. The play is a three hour long horrifying heartbreak that somehow leaves the audience feeling wiser, if more cynical, instead of beaten into exhaustion. At the close of the play, Wallis is at his most complex, conveying both protectiveness and vulnerability, hope and nihilism. It is the moment the audience has been waiting for, to see why these two have stayed together for so long. Albee described George and Martha as "a highly educated, sensitive, and intelligent couple."
As such, they're fully aware of exactly what they're letting go in the final moments of the play, and nowhere else is their complexity more clear or their connection to each other more solid. Dunn, huddled on the floor wrapped in a blanket, masks nothing from herself, her husband, or the audience. In her face is the full recognition of every truth she's facing and illusion she's shredding. Her voice, heavy with the tears she's been "crying on the inside" for all of these years, is hollow and hopeless, and the fear she expresses in overwhelmingly grief-stricken last line is evident in every line of her face. She's a woman broken, and her performance in this role is the finest I've seen.
Albee's plays, whether or not one wants to label them as theatre of the absurd or theatre of cruelty, are undeniably intellectual. In the end, it doesn't matter if the audience knows Brecht from Bach; we recognize a reflection of ourselves when we see it. The amount of thought and attention given to Albee's intellectual and theoretical intentions from the cast and crew, led by Carson Green, is extremely evident and gratifying to see. In a time where so much of theatre is intended merely to be entertaining rather than provocative, it is rare to see theory and thought placed on such obvious par with emotional impact, and it pays off in this production. The extensive playbill includes four pages of notes, a glossary, and a translation of the Requiem mass George recites in Latin in the final moments of the play. In her Note from the Director, Carson Green invites us to "observe, point, and judge. And above all else, find the honesty."
Though many of the social issues that contemporary audiences in the 1960s would have immediately recognized - the collapse of social structures, the rage inducing limitations placed on women, the general loss of direction for many middle aged people who found themselves cast into a new world order in the latter half of the twentieth century - are bound to be muted by the five decades that separate this performance from the period in which it was written and set, the insights into human nature are as painfully glaring as ever. As the play closes, George and Martha's illusions have been stripped away and the truth of the barrenness of their existence revealed to all. It is this truth that terrifies not only them, but us.
In the end, who are George and Martha if not the games they play and the delusions they maintain? All of the characters in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are lost souls searching for meaning in a world that provides them with none. They go about their lives, but those lives are empty: of God, of family, of positive relationships, and mostly of any sense of self. We are meant to see ourselves, at least a little, in these characters. They are a warning to us, and if played without intelligence, that warning is lost. Lakeside's smart production and the caliber of talent onstage make sure we don't miss it.
WHO?S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
Lakeside Community Theatre. 6303 Main Street,The Colony, TX 75056
Last week of the run - through August 25th
Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm
Tickets are $15.00 adult, $12.00 seniors and students, $10.00 for members. Group rates are available.
For info and to purchase tickets, go to www.lctthecolony.org
You can also call them at 214-801-4869 or email at; firstname.lastname@example.org