Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

By Edward Albee
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Featuring Tracy Letts, Amy Morton
Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Production
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington DC
February 25, 2011  — April 10, 2011
production web site:  http://tinyurl.com/4vor43v

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
March 23, 2011

(L-R) Carrie Coon, Tracy Letts, Madison Dirks, Amy Morton (image by Michael Brosilow)

Some of my favorite things in the world converge until April 10th on one stage in Washington, DC.  Mementos of two cities (Chicago and Washington DC) in which I have spent significant swaths of my adult life share space to honor the words of one great American playwright, and in the process craft something spellbinding.  Steppenwolf Theatre Company‘s production of Edward Albee‘s Who’s  Afraid of Virgina Woolf ?, the enchanting remodeling/formation of the Arena Stage 3-theatre campus, and a few of my favorite theatre artists in the whole wide world all together.  Be still my heart.  My performance of this production also happens to occur on  the evening of the day that Elizabeth Taylor passes away, who famously and blowsily and awarded-ly on film played the Martha at the core of this story, providing an immediate comparison for most who watch the show this evening — a kind of karmic artistic family of fictional Marthas meeting.  This is also for me an intensely personal and revelatory return to a familiar theatre text.  Two couples digging deep and finding sorrow and humor and raw wounds and gentle reconciliation.

The home of our long-married academic couple George (Tracy Letts) and Martha (Amy Morton) is artfully assembled by set designer Todd Rosenthal: piles of books on side tables and on the floor and overfilling, willy-nilly, every built-in book case. Well-made and well-worn furniture creates a center stage seating area and a fireside enclave stage left by a wood railed stairway going to the upstairs we never see.  In this world in stasis, these piles may have existed for years and these bits of furniture not moved for decades.  The most prop action is in the bar area stage right where multiple bottles of hard liquor are poured, rifled through, and occasionally dropped. For a few story hours, between 2am and dawn, after a faculty party, George and Martha entertain a new faculty member Nick (Madison Dirks) and his wife Honey (Carrie Coon).  Older History faculty George meets new up and coming Biology faculty Nick, and compare political perspectives on the College.  George’s perspective will always be thwarted by the fact that he married the College President’s charismatic daughter Martha and has lived his professional life in the shadow of his father-in-law.  Nick’s perspective, more than 20 years younger, may always be thwarted by the fact that he also has married a woman whose assets support his career (he married money), but also provide challenges (she may not be as highly educated, she has had a miscarriage, she is highly strung).  In this context of much booze and verbal banter, and gamesmanship between the men, between the married couples, and most especially between the hosts George and Martha, our play of words and illusions is performed.

Many reviewers have had a chance to engage with this production in Chicago and now in Washington. Most seem to focus on the power of George in the hands of Letts.  What a surprise, they suggest, that the milquetoast husband, often presented as the object of a verbal onslaught for the play’s three acts who finally and ultimately has had enough and speaks up and plays, in fact, the trump card in the game the couple has been playing for years in private to keep some of their emotional baggage in check.  My reaction to this production is not surprise but the sense of: my goodness we at long last see the balance always intended in this script.  The whorl of emotion, the shouting and carrying on, the blowsy insults (yes I’m thinking of you, lovely and personally generous Dame Elizabeth as I write these words) of prior Marthas tend to overshadow the sad wit, the subtle detailed gamesmanship in her words that have always been there, all along.  This is no one character’s play.  They all create the games together.

An audio joke that I always enjoyed in my own little brain but wasn’t always sure that Albee clearly intended (or other productions I’ve seen may have been unsure how to play) is made crystal-clear in this production.  The very title of the play.  Characters enter at the top of the play, fresh from the faculty party where banter had occurred, and recall humor that amused them.  Singing the words “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to the tune of the 1933 song (written for a Disney cartoon The Three Little Pigs) “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” that Barbra Streisand covered in cabaret appearances in the early 1960s and released on her 1963 debut recording The Barbra Streisand Album.  Albee and the initial New York theatre audiences would certainly have been familiar with this tune and this new performer’s presentation of it. (Martha as played by Dame Elizabeth in the 1966 movie version croons this to the tune of “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” , as I recall, which always struck me as a bizarre non sequitur.) Perhaps more important, the recall of the joke through this long after party among different constellations of the characters plays to gently include them in a little community: first George and Martha and then for a time Martha and timid Honey laugh and enjoy the never explained (and yet sung) joke: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”  The joke creates a community — it is not a one off effort but is in fact a call back to a call back (to a call back).  There is humor in this Woolf.

Director Pam MacKinnon guides this ensemble through small and large moments and achieves magic.  Magnitude of sound, of physicality are not the measures of impact in this production but rather gentle, quiet, darting verbal jabs of devastation. So much more powerful than histrionics. As George says to Martha in the play’s final moments: “It was time.”

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 27, 2011)


  1. Thanks for restoring to mind so vividly this wonderful production at Arena. The contrast to the film is so striking. Did Albee ever express an opinion about the Burton-Taylor performances?

  2. I believe Albee had someone else in mind for the movie (Bette Davis perhaps) … and that he was more enthusiastic about Burton’s performance than Taylor’s. But Mr. Albee is a gentleman is my sense of the thing.

  3. Of course there will always be comparisons to the Taylor/Burton movie. I was at once surprised and delighted at the humor in the play – I was expected it to be grim and this is to the credit of Edward Albee. I really enjoyed Tracy Letts. A play I will remember always.

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