The Rubicon Theatre’s production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf is one that I have been eagerly awaiting since it was first announced as part of the Rubicon’s 2008-9 season, and to end any suspense, let me say right away that this Virginia Woolf does not disappoint. It is a flawless production of one of the most famed and discussed plays of the second half of the 20th Century, the tale of one drunken evening at the home of college Assistant Professor George and his wife Martha, and their two young late night guests.

The reason I was (and still am) so excited about this production is its star, the divine Karyl Lynn Burns.

Unlike the actresses who have preceded her in the role of Martha (Uta Hagen, Mercedes McCambridge, Elaine Stritch, Coleen Dewhurst, and the film’s Elizabeth Taylor), Burns is nothing at all like the ballsy ball-breaker Martha, and none of the abovementioned actresses has likely ever been referred to as a “ray of sunshine,” an absolutely apt description for the incandescent Karyl Lynn. Seeing Kathleen Turner play the role two years ago (and she was great, make no mistake), I couldn’t help feeling that playing Martha was not much of a stretch for the 2005 Tony nominee.

Burns’ tour de force performance a few years back in the two-act one-actor Shirley Valentine proved that the Rubicon’s Producing Artistic Director can do anything, bringing to vivid life not only Shirley herself but all the people in the English housewife’s life, including the handsome Greek she falls in love with on a trip to the Aegean.  

Her Martha is further proof.

From Burns’ first entrance and her “Jesus H. Christ!” in a voice nothing like her own, indeed braying the words as husband George later accuses her of doing, to her first “goddamn,” to her first “FUCK YOU!” (the all caps are Albee’s), this is the playwright’s loud, vulgar, drunken Martha through and through. Burns also captures Martha’s earthy sensuality, and her vulnerability.  It is superb, three-dimensional work.

Opposite Burns is the equally memorable Joe Spano, recent winner of the Ovation Award for Best Leading Actor for his performance as F. Buckminster Fuller at the Rubicon a year ago. Where Martha is in-your-face, Assistant Professor George (accent on the word assistant) scarcely raises his voice, except when Martha’s verbal poisoned daggers hit their target and he explodes, in one instance smashing a liquor bottle against a wall. Though buying Spano as mid-forties stretches the imagination, it is not at all difficult to believe that this is a man whose life came to a standstill years ago, a man who has been stuck in a hellish rut ever since. 

Publicity for the Rubicon production “cordially” invites guests “to George and Martha’s for an evening of fun and games,” but beware, these are not your usual party games, though there is a great deal of liquor imbibed, a great deal indeed.  Martha taunts George for being a “great big fat flop,” for being “in the History Department … as opposed to being the History Department,” all the more disappointing as Martha’s father is the college President. Later, she refuses to be silenced about George’s unpublished novel, the story of “a naughty boychild … who killed his mother and his father dead” (which may or may not be George’s own story), causing husband to grab wife by the throat and nearly strangle her.  The final, most destructive game is “Bringing Up Baby,” but to say more would be to reveal too much information to anyone seeing Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf for the first time.

George and Martha’s games are reserved not just for themselves but for their guests as well.  Handsome young Nick and his mousy wife Honey get their fair share of their hosts’ cruelty, the visitors’ level of intoxication soon matching George and Martha’s. There’s Nick’s revelation of the supposed pregnancy  which led to their precipitous marriage and later turned out to be one of the “hysterical” variety, a fact he later humiliates his wife with in front of their hosts.  Martha has her own game in mind for Nick, one involving the seduction of this studly young faculty newbie, smack dab in her husband’s face.

The roles of Nick and Honey are impeccably performed here by Jason Chanos and Angela Goethals. Chanos, making a welcome return to the Rubicon following his sexy cowpoke in last year’s Bus Stop, is a Nick who grows in intensity and power. and ends up giving as good as he gets.  Goethals, an Antaeus Company favorite, is a fine choice for Honey, starting out all mousy near invisibility and gradually (with the help of alcohol) revealing the pain under Honey’s placid surface. 

For a play as deadly serious as Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf is, there are enough laughs to classify it as almost a black comedy.  Almost. And under Jenny Sullivan’s assured direction, the play scores full marks both for its comic and tragic elements.

Thomas S. Giamario’s wow of a set is a finely detailed reproduction of an East Coast college prof’s living room, with books stacked the proverbial “mile high,” and his lighting subtly emphasizes the mood shifts of Albee’s opus.  Marcy Froehich’s costumes are just right for each character and for the play’s early 60s setting, with a particular tip of the hat for Martha’s blousy costume changes. David Beaudry’s sound design is equally fine.

If there’s anything to complain about (and Albee aficionados may cry “Sacrilege!”), a three-hour play, even one as compelling as this, is still three hours long, and that’s, well, a bit long.  End of complaint.

The Rubicon’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf is once again proof that “the region’s professional theatre company” is one that Ventura and surrounding communities can indeed be proud of.  This is a production that is well worth driving up from Los Angeles to see … and savor.

Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main Street, Ventura. 

–Steven Stanley
February 1, 2009
Photos: Rod Lathim

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