Beware of the Woolf

Two marriages.  One is irrevocably broken and the other should never have been.  One night the two couples trapped in these marriages get together after a faculty party.  The older couple, George & Martha, engage in a war of words that devolves into a hideous game of one-upmanship in which the younger couple, Nick & Honey, become unwilling pawns.  This is Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opening Friday in the Howard Drew Theatre at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Edward Albee’s ability with the written word is second to none.  His writing is lyrical, almost operatic, as each scene is a movement that slowly builds onto the previous until the work reaches its epic crescendo.  To that end, director Hilary Adams has conducted an absolute masterpiece with this work.  Every nuance is so rich and subtle.  Each discovery is fresh and wonderful.  All the actors are so vibrant and mesmerizing.  Mark my words, this play is going to go down as one of the great classics in the illustrious history of the Playhouse.

Passive-aggression, thy name is George.  Brennan Thomas plays this role in the same fashion a violin virtuoso plays a Stradivarius.  Utilizing a clean, simple delivery, Thomas’ George comes off as a quiet, soft-spoken man.  But this soft-spoken nature barely covers a smoldering cauldron of anger and frustration that peeks out when George lets his emotions get the better of him.

Thomas skillfully and nimbly dances from beat to beat and each comment and revelation from George is extemporaneous and original as a result of Thomas’ fine work.  Thomas’ George is quite smug and smarmy.  He knows a lot of fifty dollar words and fires them like bullets from a gun at whoever raises his ire or simply because he can.  However, he also has an unbelievably fragile ego.  Despite his disdain towards his wife, Martha, her opinion actually means something as he melts down like a child when she presses just the right button.  And, like a child, he decides to retaliate with such games as Get the Guests, Hump the Hostess, and a tragically final endgame in Bringing Up Baby.  The only thing keeping Thomas’ performance from perfection is that he needs to increase his volume.  At some points, he was so whisper quiet that it would have been impossible to hear him if not for his naturally strong and carrying voice.

Charleen Willoughby has a career defining performance in the role of Martha.  Ms Willoughby’s Martha is a two fisted drunk and she is only too happy to pummel you with those fists.  As Martha, Ms Willoughby unintentionally fires the first rounds of the war with George by breaking their cardinal rule. . .she talks about their son with Honey.  But she doesn’t shy away from the fight and she fights dirty.

Ms Willoughby is at turns cruel, vixenish, pitiable, and heartbreaking.  With ease, her Martha mocks her husband’s first novel and scoffs at Nick’s inability to “get it up”.  She flirts with and seduces Nick in a very intense makeout session that will make people blush.  She engages in a haunting monologue at the top of Act III where she plays both sides of a conversation with George that shows a longing for something better and she ends the play tragically broken as a result of Bringing Up Baby that will leave you in tears.

There are not enough superlatives to describe Megan Friend’s performance as Honey.  Her talent is simply staggering.  Ms Friend plays Honey as a flakey, less than intelligent, overgrown party girl.  She arrives at the party slightly stewed and is five sheets to the wind by the end of the show.  Honey’s drunkenness is deftly essayed with a loose, awkward body language and spectacularly slurred speech.  Ms Friend also adds a stunning sympathy factor to the role.  You cannot help, but feel sorry at her inability to recognize George’s mockery of her or ignore the sympathy that comes with the understanding of the tragedy that drives her behavior.

I salute Steve Hartman’s heroics in stepping into the role of Nick at the 11th hour.  Hartman replaced the original actor last Friday, leaving him less than a week to prepare this difficult and arduous character.  His performance is not as polished as the other three due to his limited prep time, but he has done some truly excellent work in the short time he had to get ready and this includes the Herculean task of memorizing a sizable chunk of dialogue in 6 days.  By the end of this run, Hartman’s work will easily be on the level of the other 3 actors.

Hartman brings an energy to the role of Nick.  A young genius who got his Master’s degree at the age of 19, Hartman’s Nick is determined to make the most of his career.   He attends this get-together simply because George is a respected associate professor and Martha is the daughter of the university president.  Hartman comes off as politely aloof, at first, as he makes small talk and deflects George’s subtle barbs.  But he’s also got a spine and will stand up for himself as well as defend his wife’s honor, even though it’s implied that he didn’t marry Honey out of love. As the night’s drinking takes effect, Hartman peels off the aloofness and reveals some rather unsavory qualities of Nick such as his eager willingness to take revenge on George by sleeping with Martha, simultaneously revealing that he’s not very dedicated to Honey.  Hartman’s Nick can also be a bit childish such as his excuses for his poor performance in Martha’s bed and his petulant demands that Martha not call him a houseboy (the penalty for the bad performance) in front of George.

Jim Othuse has designed a lovely living room set for this play and Darin Kuehler’s properties give it just the right touch of home.

Albee had a knack for revealing the uglier side of human nature in his writings and this play is certainly no exception.  Yet, in all of the ugliness, there is still a tiny glimmer of hope that these characters can overcome their situations.  The show is an exhausting and emotional roller coaster ride and the audience will be just as exhausted as the actors by the end of it.

“Truth or illusion”, says Martha.  The illusion that is this play actually reveals a lot of truth about the human condition.  You will be changed by watching it and that is what great drama does.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse from May 8-June 7.  Showtimes are 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays and 2pm on Sundays.  Tickets prices are $36 for adults and $22 for students.  Tickets can be obtained at www.omahaplayhouse.com or call 402-553-0800.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.  This show contains strong language and adult situations and is  meant for mature audiences.

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