The Big Bad Woolf

A late night party between a pair of couples begins civilly.  As the couples continue to imbibe, old wounds and frustrations begin to manifest, resulting in a hideous game of oneupsmanship between the older couple that threatens to tear both pairs apart.  This is Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? currently playing at the Performing Artists Repertory Theatre.

Edward Albee had a real talent for revealing the unsavory underbelly of humanity.  And he does it so subtly and with a tragic poetic beauty.  What starts out as good natured jabbing between an older couple while hosting a young couple transforms into something much darker as the ripostes and reactions become a little more cutting and a bit more brutal.  Suddenly the younger couple gets dragged into the tidal wave of verbal sewage until the disaster hits its peak.  Then it drains slowly away and under all the bilge is still a touch of hope and beauty.

Gordon Cantiello does quite superlative work with his direction.  He makes wonderful use of the theatre in the round space with highly animated staging which allows the actors to keep up the energy of the show and play to all sides of the theatre.  He also thoroughly did his homework on this piece as he understands the numerous twists, beats, and climaxes of each scene and has his insanely talented cast play them to perfection.

Delaney Driscoll rules the stage as Martha.  Ms Driscoll’s Martha is truly a vile piece of humanity.  At one point she says she wears the pants in the family and that’s certainly true as she rules with a iron fist.  She derives a sadistic pleasure out of torturing her husband with vicious comments about his failures and embarrassments or just simply ogling and seducing the young new faculty member visiting their home while guzzling booze and snacking on liquor soaked ice cubes.

Ms Driscoll’s presence defies belief and fills the entire theatre as she charmingly essays a bag of human misery.  And yet, she still is able to make you feel a bit of sympathy towards her when you finally understand what fuels her vicious behavior.

Brent Spencer gives a nuanced, well-balanced performance as George, Martha’s husband.  The best way to describe Spencer’s George is if Machiavelli were a spineless weakling.  Nobody with an ounce of self-respect would put up with the abuse with which Martha subjects George.  Not that he’s a wimp.  He can give as good as he gets with his verbal shots and Spencer’s understated delivery allows him to spout insults that leave people wondering if they have just been zinged.  But when he’s pushed too far, watch out!

When this worm finally turns, he does so with devastating effect.  Spencer’s George gleefully develops horrific games such as “Get the Guests” and “Bringing Up Baby” to inflict maximum punishment on his wife and guests.

Mark Booker underplays Nick so beautifully.  He is clearly the parallel to Martha as he is the boss of his family unit and also trapped in a unsuccessful marriage.  Unlike Martha, he can be kind as he does defend his wife, Honey, from some of the verbal fusillade spewing from George’s mouth.  My favorite part of Booker’s interpretation was how he slowly revealed the spiteful, vengeful side of his personality as he got further into his cups.  This is not a man I would want to cross as he delivers double the punishment for every blow he gets.  Not only can he stand toe to toe verbally with George, he unabashedly makes love to Martha just to twist the knife a bit further.

Katie Otten broke my heart with her take on Honey.  She is the lone, wholly sympathetic character in the piece.  Her ramrod posture indicates the constant level of tension she lives with and is only able to cope with copious amounts of alcohol.  When she’s blitzed her real personality of a fun-loving, uneducated party girl shines through. Miss Otten’s Honey seems a poor match for her genius husband until the truth of their relationship is revealed.

One of my friends once described watching this show as the verbal equivalent of having the skin flayed off his body.  That seems a rather apt description as the power of Albee’s words combined with a superior cast will take the audience along on a bitter, intense roller coaster ride that will leave you feeling beaten and wearied by the end.  That feeling is further enhanced by the skillful sound effects of Doug Huggins as his noises buoy the show’s most powerful and key moments.  It is not an easy show to watch, but it is enthralling.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continues at the PART through Feb 17.  Showtimes are 7pm Fri-Sat and 2pm on Sundays.  Tickets cost $35 ($30 for seniors (60+) and $25 students.  For tickets, contact the box office at 402-706-0778.  Due to mature themes, the show is not recommended for children.  The PART is located inside of Crossroads Mall next to Target at 7400 Dodge St in Omaha, NE.


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 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.

Haunting Albee Drama to End Playhouse’s Howard Drew Season

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

by Edward Albee

May 8–June 7, 2015 (Wed-Sat at 7:30pm & Sundays at 2pm)

The Tony Award-winning drama, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is one of the greatest theatrical masterpieces of all time. As George and Martha’s marriage falls apart, their new friends, Nick and Honey, become pawns in their cruel mind games. A war of words and exercises of wits drive Edward Albee’s revolutionary play.

This production contains adult content and strong language and is intended for mature audiences.

Tickets go on sale April 28.  Tickets prices are $36 for adults and $22 for students.  Tickets can be obtained at or call 402-553-0800.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cast Street in Omaha, NE.

media sponsor: Cox

Directed by Hilary Adams

Stage Managed by Lara Marsh


Charleen Willoughby as Martha

Brennan Thomas as George

Steve Hartman as Nick

Megan Friend as Honey

A Season of Change, Part IV: Is There a Woolf at the Door?

“The wonderful joy at being able to say ‘yes’ to a talented artist is often undercut by the horrible responsibility of having to say ‘no’ so many more times to equally talented artists.”—Unknown

I don’t envy the lot of directors when it comes to casting.  As difficult as things are on the acting side, there is also a tremendous amount of difficulty on the casting side.  Getting just the right blend of performers to tell the best possible story is truly an art form and I believe the above quotation best reflects the plight of directors.

Having to break a lot of hearts is not fun.  I’m also certain the criticism for doing so is even less enjoyable.

“It’s not fair.”

“He/she hates me.”

“It’s all politics and favoritism.”

I’m certain directors have heard variations of the above remarks and then some on numerous occasions.  Sometimes the criticism may be well founded and true.  But, by and large, I believe a director’s choices are impersonal and rejection simply comes from the fact that you did not suit the director’s vision.  This is something I’ve grown to understand and appreciate more over the last year and a half since I became an independent theatre critic.  I’ve grown to appreciate it so much that I’m thinking about trying my hand at direction one day, so if any of my director friends are reading this and are interested in letting me shadow them for a show next season, drop me a line.

I once read an article by a director who said, “I hate that experienced, talented actors can see whether or not they get cast as a measure of their intrinsic worth as actors”.  Truer words were never spoken.  This is the only business I know where you can be a failure and a success all at the same time.  But I’d also like to take a moment to try to respond to that statement.

The reason actors see the casting as the yardstick of their worth as performers is that it is the only validation we have of our skills.  Sometimes a rejection can be done in such a way that it almost completely salves the disappointment of not getting the job.  But the bottom line is if we’re not the ones on stage or in front of the camera telling the story, we instinctively feel as if we failed even if we intellectually know that the work we did in the audition was good.  After all, everyone likes to taste the fruit of their labors.

Now I’ve told you all that to set the stage for my latest theatre tale.

After the victorious defeat of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I began preparing for a return to the Playhouse with an audition for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  For me, it would be my first audition under the new Playhouse artistic director, Hilary Adams.

I knew the odds would be long going into this show.  The show is only a 4 person cast and there is only one role for a younger man.  Knowing that up front actually took a considerable amount of pressure from my shoulders.  I headed into the audition solely with the intention of making a good showing and leaving with my head held high.  Anything else would simply be icing on the cake.

The turnout was smaller than I expected, but still more than enough to be able to cast the show from our night alone.  As I glanced around the room, I knew the role of Nick (the one I was eligible for) could be cast three times over at a minimum as I noticed both Nick Zadina and Sean, who read so well for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in attendance along with myself.

Under Hilary’s leadership, auditions have changed at the Playhouse and I would say for the better.  Now pictures of the actors are taken to go along with their audition information sheets.  Hilary also prefers to bring the performers in as small groups.  I think this brings a double edged advantage to the actors as they not only know that they have the director’s full attention, but I think it unleashes their creativity to the Nth degree.  They do not have to worry that their interpretation is similar to another performer’s.  Every actor can be secure in the knowledge that everything done in the audition will be perceived as completely original.

I ended up being in the second group called in to audition.  It was an older gent named Lance and myself who would be reading the roles of George and Nick.

This first read presented one of the interesting challenges of the audition process as actors of varying levels of talent are often paired together.  My partner was very inexperienced and it showed.  When experienced/naturally talented performers work together, the energy of the performance is like a ball that’s tossed around in a game of hot potato.  Toss in an inexperienced/less talented person and it’s like throwing a ball against a wall and watching it drop.

Before we began reading, Hilary made the interesting request for us not to block anything.  Another hurdle removed as some performers are so intent on the words that movement sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.

The pressure was really on George in this side as he has the bulk of the dialogue and gets the ball rolling.  Lance read and it sounded like reading as well.  For my own part, I was pleased with my work.  I fired the ball with energy, made some decisive choices about Nick, and presented a character I liked.  I did find it humorous that in the back of my head I kept thinking, “Oh, this feels like a movement line.  That feels like another.  There’s a third.”

About a half hour later, I was called in again.  This time I read with two people.  A man named Jeremy would read as George and Sydney Readman would read as Nick’s wife, Honey.  This time I felt that ball being tossed around.  Jeremy had some nice chops and instincts and had a really rich speaking voice.

Again I was pleased with my work and really enjoyed the byplay between the three of us in the scene.  After we had read it once, Hilary asked us to read it again, but gave some direction to Sydney and me.  For Nick, she wanted me to make him “more beta and less alpha”.  She explained that at this early stage, Nick wouldn’t be standing up to George quite so much.  This was a business meeting and Nick is trying to make a good impression.  She also asked me to be a bit more loving towards Honey.  I processed these changes and gave a more beta interpretation.  Though in hindsight, I think I should have kissed Sydney’s hand to seem more loving.  The words had the right intention and I did tenderly clasp her arm, but my gut says a stronger action should have been used.

Twenty minutes after the read, Jeannine Robertson, the Playhouse’s Artistic Administrative Assistant, told me that Hilary had seen all she needed from me and that I could go home.  I had been there for 2 ½ hours, read three times, and took some direction.  All in all, the signs of a very positive audition.  Callbacks would be on Saturday so I knew if I didn’t get notification by the end of Friday, I could officially consider myself out of the running.  I had nothing to be ashamed of as I accomplished my main task.  I had a good showing and, hopefully, gave Hilary something to remember for future auditions.

Regrettably, I did not receive that callback.  Fortunately, I was braced for it, but it’s still a mild disappointment.  But I did the best I could with the material I had.  The only regret, as it were, was that I would have liked to have read a meatier side for Nick.  Then I would have known that I had truly given it all that I had.

With such a small cast, other good actors also, unfortunately, heard the word, ‘no’ for this one, too.  And, believe me, there was some heavyweight talent that did not make it in.  Let me see if these numbers put it in perspective.  Four people heard the word ‘yes’.  At least twenty others heard the word ‘no’.  Chew on that for a bit.

While there’s no Woolf at the door for me, I do remain content that there will be something for me in the future.  A friend once told me that becoming a stronger actor doesn’t mean the number of roles you obtain goes up.  It just means that the quality of your rejections goes up.  With some of my adventures over the past couple of years, I think there’s quite a bit of truth to that statement.  But, if I may add to his statement, I think the quality of the rewards goes up, too, and that’s something all actors should keep in mind.

Until the next time.