When I first watched the film version of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, I put the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton tour de force in the same category as Ol' Yeller — everyone should see it, but once is probably enough.
On Sunday, I ignored my own advice and did it again. I watched Albee's dramatic tale of two marriages gruesomely caught in the crossfire of love, disappointment and illusion, but this time I watched it the way it was intended to be: on the stage.
Fifty years after the October 1962 stage premiere, Banta Productions, in conjunction with Actors Guild of Lexington, mounted a courageous production of Albee's Tony Award-winning drama.
The three-hour, three-act play covers a late evening in 1962 between history professor George and his older wife, Martha. Steeped in two decades of mutual disappointments, the couple relentlessly assault each other, physically and emotionally, while entertaining a young couple who are both shocked and altered by their hosts' behavior. Psychological warfare is standard, with occasional pauses for booze refills and small truces of admiration.
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The film had prepared me to brace myself for the bitterly dark cacophony of marital feuding between George and Martha, but I was surprised that director Anthony Haigh's vision of the play brought more nuance, guts and redeeming twinges of hope to the material than I remembered in the film version.
Matthew Hallock's shag-carpeted 1962 scenic and lighting design sets the tone for the psychological fish bowl that is small-college campus life in general and George and Martha's home in particular.
At first, I couldn't stop superimposing Elizabeth Taylor's dark hair over Sharon Sikorski's blond locks, but as the play wore on, I abandoned my preconceived notions and appreciated Sikorski's unique insights into Martha's vitriolic conflict.
For one, Martha is smarter than most professors in the college, who are all men. In the early '60s, though, and even though her is president of the college, her life purpose is limited to wife, and it just isn't enough.
As much as she is let down by her marriage to George, who she deridingly calls "swampy," among other things, she is buoyed by it. No one else can battle her in intellect or daring.
Sikorski's performance seems almost flippant and shallow as the play opens, but as each act deepens, as more alcohol is consumed, she begins to peel away the layers, the pretenses, the motivations behind the games, revealing Martha's vulnerabilities behind her bullying. The opening monologue of the third act is particularly compelling, alternating between the raw and the delicate, the crude and the kind.
Bob Singleton's performance as George similarly reveals a darkly haunting commitment to what passes for love for Martha. In a flourish of utterly dysfunctional romance, he earns her allegiance by besting her with emotional cruelty.
The duo's chemistry engrossingly builds the play's momentum as the psychological anticipation swells.
Supporting cast members Nick Swarts and Bethany Finley deliver solid performances as the young couple embarking on a life that might lead them down the same road as George and Martha.
Haigh directs with an even hand, conducting Albee's script like a musical score, with carefully interpreted crescendos and rests. Otherwise the play could run the risk of sounding like three hours of screaming from the pit of hell, which is kind of how I remember the film.
The only drawback to Sunday's matinee performance was the occasional noisy echo from the Gymboree next door, which isn't a problem in the evening. Otherwise, I concur with Anthony Haigh's assertion in his program notes that an evening with George and Martha might not be "comfortable" but is definitely worth it.