When Drew Fracher was asked about directing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” for AthensWest Theatre his answer was a quick, “oh, heck, yeah.”
Neither Fracher, nor his wife Sherman who plays Martha in the production that opens February 8, had ever been involved in a production of Edward Albee’s 1962 classic, but they jumped at the chance when artistic director Bo List approached them.
The play — best known to many from the 1966 film directed by Mike Nichols and starring then-husband and wife team of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor — unfolds over the course of one long, booze-filled evening. List described it as “kind of a haunted house of emotional baggage and mind games,” played out among middle-aged George (Brian Mulholland) and Martha, and their younger guests, Nick (Jarred Baugh) and Honey (Tay Schultz).
The raging, profane conflict between George and Martha is at the heart of the piece but Fracher said it’s much more than that.
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“There is so much packed into every page of dialogue, there’s just so much going on,” including some “parts that are hilarious.” That combination of tragedy and comedy was “kind of revolutionary” at the time it opened, Fracher said.
So revolutionary that in 1963, although the nominating committee recommended “Virginia Woolf” for the Pulitzer prize in drama the Pulitzer board chose to forego any award for theater rather than give it to Albee’s “dirty” play. (Two drama critics on the nominating committee resigned in protest.)
In the process of talking through the play, Fracher said he and the actors saw much more in it, too.
“It’s such a comment on the American dream,” he said. The early ‘60s were “still very much an Ozzie and Harriet world,” in popular media. But Albee was having none of it.
“It’s a severe indictment of that,” middle-class, all-American myth, he said ‘let’s examine the dark underbelly.’”
Like all classics, its relevance persists. George, a history professor, mulls questions about what, if anything, we learn from history, something Fracher said, “has serious resonance right now.” And a central theme of “Virginia Woolf” is truth, the question of what’s real. “There’s a lot of talk about lies,” Fracher said, “about whether if you say it enough times is it real.”
As the two couples wind through their tortured evening, “we sort of find out the repercussions of having a fantasy and believing it and it becomes real,” Fracher said.
For the Frachers, the evenings working on the play are a different experience from the action in the play. The couple, who live on a farm outside Harrodsburg, have spent decades following theatrical careers that often separated them for weeks or months at a time. But, “we’ve gotten to a place in our lives and in our marriage where we don’t like being apart,” Drew Fracher said, “so it’s awesome to be able to work together.”
It’s his first production with Athens West but the fourth time that Sherman has played with the company. It’s also Baugh’s first Athens West production but Schultz previously played Emily in “Our Town.”
Athens West has a theme for each season and the 2018-2019 concept is “love,” something List acknowledged isn’t always associated with the conflict-ridden night that unfolds in “Virginia Woolf.”
“But there are all kinds of love — some of it fresh and new and optimistic, and some of it is old and sour and jaded,” he said. George and Martha have been married a long time, “and their marriage has kind of curdled into something bitter and biting — but there is still love there. Whether it can survive or not is another story.”
That subtlety, that complexity is what feeds theater professionals Fracher said. “When you have a chance to work on a piece like this you have to jump at it.”
If you go
‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’
When: Feb. 8-24; 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m., Sunday
Where: Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Cost: $27.50 adults; $22.50 students, seniors, active military
Info: Athenswest.net or 859-425-2550