The other show we saw in Chicago earlier this month was the Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I run hot and cold on Albee, but not on this early masterpiece. I remember being floored by it the first time I saw it on stage (at Stratford a decade ago), and the play has only deepened on reflection.
But there is a widespread feeling that the play has dated – that it doesn’t speak to us anymore. The casual comfort with excessive drinking. The mature attitude toward adultery. The pre-feminist sexual politics. The implicit assumption that adoption was a stigma. And so on and so on. And I want to understand that feeling better, because I think it related to a more general difficulty with keeping modern classics alive.
The risk, one that I talked a bit about in my comments on a recent production of The Pirates of Penzance, is that because the characters are so embedded in a particular period, we don’t relate to them directly. I have this problem with Death of a Salesman (a particular bête noir of mine, so feel free to disagree) the play can become a kind of myth, but the period itself becomes a part of the myth, and so any production runs a serious risk of becoming an exercise in nostalgia. (This is, incidentally, also a subtle risk in setting Shakespeare in a familiar and recent time period – the risk of turning something timeless into a period piece.)
I don’t find this to be true of Who’s Afraid, though. The games they play are still all too familiar – and some of the themes (particularly related to infertility and the symbolic meaning of children many couples) strike me as even more relevant today than they were when it was written.
This production, though, didn’t quite bring the terrible truths of the play home. I enjoyed it enormously – Tracy Letts in particular plays George with exquisite comic timing, and there is so much comedy in the play, it’s a pleasure to see it fully brought out. But it didn’t hit me where I live the way this play should. So I wondered why that might be.
Part of the problem was Amy Morton’s Martha. She’s a talented actress and she brought a down-to-earth naturalism that I don’t associate with the character – and that was a refreshing change for much of the first act, and particularly for the opening moments, when her easy manner gave no warning of the storms to come. That’s nice, because it makes it clearer that the ferocity of that storm is substantially due to her slip in conversation with Honey. But there were two enormous problems. The first is that she simply wasn’t convincing as Nick’s would-be seductress. I could believe that Nick would be pretending to be turned on by her as a way of advancing his career and putting down George. But I just couldn’t believe that he had a genuine sexual attraction to this woman. More seriously still, George’s brutal final play of the night, where he “kills” their child, simply doesn’t land with the devastation with which it must. She’s upset. But she’s not shattered. And if she’s not shattered, then what is this play actually about?
Remember, the title of the play refers to a fear of madness unto suicide. That’s what George is terrified of from about twenty minutes into the first act, when he learns that his wife has spoken of their imaginary son to an outsider. He’s been playing along for years, taking care of her, sacrificing his own life, in many ways to this woman, but this is a bridge too far – this could be the onset of true madness. And he’s not going to be dragged down into that pit. Anything he needs to do to keep both of them out of it, he’ll do. That’s why he’s willing to make the desperation move of saying their boy is dead.
The third problem, I think, is something that is none of the actors’ or the director’s fault, and that is that the author himself mucked with the text for the 2005 revival, and, in my humble opinion, did a disservice to the play in doing so – and now nobody is even allowed to put on the old version. He made a bunch of small changes to the text that I didn’t really notice, but he radically changed the end of Act 2 in ways that have profound consequences for the play. The scene between George and Honey is out, and the “revelation” that the boy is dead – previously made to Honey and the audience at the bottom of Act 2 – now only comes at the end of Act 3; we learn at the same time as Martha does (and, indeed, we have no way of knowing that George was planning this revelation from the top of the Act – perhaps he isn’t anymore; who knows?). The loss of her scene with George drastically reduces Honey’s impact on the play – she goes from being a haunting figure to an afterthought. And turning her into an afterthought results in an inflated position for Nick – we see his marriage almost entirely from his perspective. He doesn’t deserve that favor. And without the revelation at the bottom of Act 2, Act 3 lacks all suspense. (Recall Hitchcock’s definition of suspense: the audience sees the bomb under the table before it explodes.) We don’t know a big revelation is coming, so we can’t understand George’s behavior at the top of the act. There’s no dangerous undercurrent to what’s going on, no dread – and therefore the final twist (the genuine surprise that the child isn’t real) doesn’t have as much impact, because it follows too hard upon the previous revelation that the “child” has been killed. (Moreover, because Honey’s scene with George has been excised, she has basically nothing to do during the big final scene – whereas in the old text the audience is in the same position as she is; she’s acting out our dread, and thereby magnifying it.)
I’m really at a loss to understand why Albee did this. I’m told it was to shorten the play. I can’t give that explanation much credit – Albee is famously prickly about his text, and would hardly acquiesce in any demand from a mere producer to shorten it, and if there was no demand then why consider it? No, I suspect there were artistic reasons for the revision – I just don’t know what they could be.
In any event, in spite of Martha’s weakness in that final scene (not entirely her own fault – partly due to changes in the text) this is still a powerful and very funny production. Madison Dirks does a fine job with Nick and Carrie Coon is no slouch as Honey – I wish she’d gotten a chance to sink her teeth into the rest of the role!