Director Matt Schwartz says love is at the root of the anger in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" This weekend, TriCara productions will stage two performances of the play at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.
In the early 1950s, the American playwright Edward Albee saw a phrase scrawled in soap on a mirror in a saloon: “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Several years later, when he was writing a play, the phrase returned to his mind, Albee told The Paris Review in 1966.
“And of course, ‘who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf’ means ‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’ … who’s afraid of living life without false illusions,” Albee said. “And it did strike me as being a rather typical university, intellectual joke.”
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” went on to win the Tony Award and is now regarded as one of the best works of American dramatic literature.
This weekend, TriCara productions will stage two performances of the play at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.
Written in 1961, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” takes place in the living room of George and Martha, a 46-year-old college professor and his 52-year-old wife, married for 23 years.
They return home at 2 a.m. after a faculty party and Martha announces she has invited a new, younger member of the faculty and his wife over that night — or rather morning. Enter Nick and Honey, who become pawns in the mind games through which George and Martha spar.
The night starts out with seemingly gentle mocking.
“I’m six years younger than you are … I always have been and I always will be,” George says to Martha.
“Well … you’re going bald,” Martha replies.
“So are you,” George says.
But things get vicious as the night progresses, and the booze and anger keep flowing.
“A lot of times it’s been played with such vehemence, in past productions that I’ve seen, that I wanted to make sure that there were redeeming qualities in both George and Martha,” said Matt Schwartz, who is directing and producing the play. “Because I feel that the more you can, not necessarily like them, but the more you can admire them, the tougher the hard parts are going to be in the show.
“Instead of watching two people just mindlessly destroying each other — which is the way it’s been played a lot — if you can see the spots where they might not be now but they have been in love, or they can appreciate the way each other lives and plays the game, all the better for the show.”
That knock — a bit too much anger — has been leveled at the 1966 movie adaptation starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis and George Segal. (Both Taylor and Dennis won Oscars for their roles, though neither showed up at the awards ceremony to accept in person.)
Albee addressed the film in the Paris Review interview, saying he was largely happy with the “very good” film but regretted some oversimplifications.
“For example, whenever something occurs in the play on both an emotional and intellectual level, I find in the film that only the emotional aspect shows through. The intellectual underpinning isn’t as clear. In the film I found that in the love-hate games that George and Martha play, their intellectual enjoyment of each other’s prowess doesn’t show through anywhere nearly as strongly as it did in the play,” Albee said.
In a 2005 interview on the Charlie Rose show, Kathleen Turner, who was playing Martha in a new production that year, was harsher in her assessment of the film. She said she’d intentionally avoided watching the entire thing, knowing she someday wanted to play the role herself.
“I’ve seen clips — I mean, it’s inevitable over the years — but all I’ve seen is a couple of screaming drunks, and I just don’t think that’s what it’s about,” Turner said.
“What’s it about?” Rose asked.
“A love. An absolute love. It’s about an absolute interdependency,” Turner said.
Schwartz echoed that sentiment.
“Once you get down to the marrow, down to who you really are, it really is a love story,” Schwartz said.
“All this talk, all these games — it’s all to avoid the silence between each other.
“The whole last part of the play — maybe five pages — is all done in silence. Silence, silence, pause, pause. Because deep down I think that’s what they’re afraid of. If it was quiet, there’d be nothing there. There’d be nothing to say,” Schwartz said.
Harvey Mack, who plays George, said he believes it’s one of the best characters in one of the best plays in American theater.
“I’m feeling lucky just to have the opportunity to do it,” Mack said.
With only four people, each character has a lot more dialogue than they would in a play with a larger cast.
“There’s just line on top of line on top of line,” said J.B. Meier, who plays the younger college professor. “No pauses, no breaks, no catching your breath and figuring out what is that next line — you’ve got to get in the flow and keep going.”
Mack said that he goes over his lines in his head when driving between Springfield and Jacksonville, but the length of “Woolf” has confounded that practice.
“Usually in any show I’ve ever been through before, between here and Jacksonville, I could go through it twice,” Mack said. But with “Virginia Woolf,” he says he “can’t even get through one act.”
Cassie Poe, who plays Honey (probably not her real name, though that’s never made clear), has the inverse problem.
“She does not have quite as much (dialogue), not nearly as much, which is a challenge in itself with such a wordy show,” Poe said.
“You can’t leave your character ever. So when it’s four or five pages between your lines, and they’re just small interjections, you have to make sure that you stay with it and you’re following in character.”
Poe also said she was looking forward to playing a drunken character for a change of pace. (She recently played the milkmaid in Springfield Theatre Centre’s “Our American Cousin” and the titular role in “Anne of Green Gables” at Theatre in the Park.)
“It’s hard to walk the line between being realistically drunk and being a caricature of a drunk,” Poe said.
For Cynda Wrightsman, who plays Martha, her own life has informed her performance.
“I do bring to this character a very long marriage. It will be 35 years in November, not that our marriage is anything like this,” Wrightsman said. “It is very much a piece that people will understand in that way.
“You do know how people have their own little private things, or arguments that can go back for years, or things that they never really let them live down. In a long-term relationship, you learn each other’s buttons and weak spots, and you know how to use them. You get very good at it.”
Wrightsman laughed and added, “I hope my husband denies that.”
The play is to be staged in the Hoogland Center’s Club Room, a relatively small space with the potential for more intimacy.
“In your face,” Schwartz said. “I want them to feel like they’re in the room.
“People are going to want to leave, I know people are going to want to leave, but they’re not going to be able to — it’s like watching a train wreck with the characters,” Schwartz said.
“You want to see exactly where this is going to end up.”
Brian Mackey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (217) 747-9587.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Presented by TriCara Productions
7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Hoogland Center for the Arts, Club Room, 420 S. Sixth St.
$16, available at the Hoogland Center box office, (217) 523-2787 or scfta.org