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.