December 12, 2010
Theater Review | 'Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'
Watch It, Martha: This George Is a Stealth Bomb
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
CHICAGO — Tracy Letts has a national profile — a modest international one, even — on the strength of his name as a playwright. “August: Osage County,” his bleak, brilliant comedy-drama about an imploding American family, collected most of the major theater awards, including the Tony for best play and the Pulitzer Prize.
But in Chicago his renown as a playwright came as the second act of an already established career as a performer. Mr. Letts has been a working actor here for more than two decades, winning acclaim in plays ranging from David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” to Richard Greenberg’s “Three Days of Rain” to Martin McDonagh’s “Pillowman.”
His commanding performance as George in the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s revival of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” will surely come as no surprise to local theatergoers. But it is hard to imagine that it will not prove a high point in Mr. Letts’s career, for the simple reason that it would be a high point in any actor’s. (Mr. Letts’s only New York stage appearance to date came in the Steppenwolf production of Austin Pendleton’s play “Orson’s Shadow” Off Broadway.)
Mr. Letts’s sparring partner in Mr. Albee’s three-act epic of marital discord is none other than Amy Morton, who starred in “August” at Steppenwolf (where the play had its premiere in 2007), on Broadway and beyond. Her steely Barbara, chief adversary in a merciless battle of wills and wits with her pill-popping mother, was an unforgettable portrait of a wounded woman whose fighting spirit proved to be a match for even the brutal Violet of Deanna Dunagan, one of the scariest of scary moms in all of American drama.
The qualities Ms. Morton brought to that Tony-nominated performance — a husky, resonant voice, a forceful presence and acute intelligence — are all fittingly on display in her turn as Mr. Albee’s relentless antagonist Martha, who surely donated an aesthetic chromosome or two to Mr. Letts’s wily Violet.
It’s taking nothing away from Ms. Morton’s bone-dry, adroit performance to suggest that the revelation of this fine production, directed by Pam MacKinnon (Mr. Albee’s “Peter and Jerry”) and featuring Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon as Nick and Honey, is Mr. Letts’s spellbinding George. (The production, Steppenwolf’s first-ever of a play by Mr. Albee because of an ancient conflict, now resolved, moves to the Arena Stage in Washington after its Chicago run.)
Mr. Letts’s performance is so striking because in most productions George is the less showy of the two central roles. (Less rewarded, certainly: Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar for her Martha in the movie, but the equally fine — perhaps finer — Richard Burton racked up another loss.) Martha’s braying tends to be the dominant note in Mr. Albee’s dissonant quartet, her predatory maneuvers ceding the stage to George’s more sophisticated game playing only in the final stretches. But in this production, George’s stealthy journey from apparently passive victim to merciless aggressor — and ultimately to liberator of both himself and his wife from the destructive delusions they share — becomes the transfixing drama taking place beneath the surface fireworks.
Mr. Letts has played George before — under the direction of Ms. Morton, intriguingly, at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta in 2003. The nuance, comic variety and emotional depth of his performance evidence how deeply he has explored every suffocating corner and dry expanse of George’s life-corroded soul. He knows this man right down to the marrow and brings fresh shadings to every layer of Mr. Albee’s portrait of the ultimate enabler.
While doing no violence to the role’s conception — the hunched shoulders, hands plunged like moles in the cardigan pockets and eyes disappearing behind mousy glasses are standard signifiers of George’s defeated state — Mr. Letts also makes it clear early on that George is at no point the spineless milquetoast he chooses to impersonate. Even when he recoils from one of his wife’s vicious taunts or reckless revelations, George exudes a calculating intensity, as of a cornered animal tensed for attack.
The rigor with which Mr. Letts’s George shapes his every phrase, the delicate inflections he brings to his mordant joking — and Mr. Letts handily scores the evening’s strongest and most consistent laughs — are but the more refined manifestations of an ever-vigilant will that slowly begins to manifest itself in physical form. The whinnying laugh is a bit of vocal camouflage; the real George flashes forth in his dark, clipped intimations that Martha has gone too far.
It is chilling to be so intimately aware of the implacable ruthlessness with which George plans the evisceration of his wife’s comforting fantasies. When he finally unleashes the full force of his fury on Martha, the bloodletting almost comes as a relief, even as it makes you catch your breath. (This is the only time I’ve seen the play when I felt a protective impulse toward Martha.)
As the couple sustaining collateral damage during the drawn-out campaign between George and Martha, Mr. Dirks and Ms. Coon at first seem likely to fade into the chintz couches. But Ms. Coon, drawing less on the simpering affability that Sandy Dennis employed in her definitive film performance, imbues the sozzled Honey with a sweet sympathy and a hint of a backbone, and her tantrum of anguish at her husband’s betrayal is powerfully affecting. Mr. Dirks’s role as dart board, stud for hire and straight man is the play’s most thankless, but he fulfills it capably.
Ms. Morton’s Martha, unusually, comes across as a sometimes tentative antagonist, as if she senses that the game truly has changed and isn’t sure she wants to fully engage under the new rules of combat. But as the vanquished Martha, raw and desperate, she is devastating. The hard mask of a cynical woman has cracked open to reveal the yearning face of a frightened girl desperate for comfort.
The consoling embrace of Mr. Letts’s George is equally moving. As ruthless as he has been, George alone has the insight to see that he and Martha revile in each other only the weakness in themselves. And he alone can summon the courage to sacrifice the consoling illusion that first knit them together in their sadness, only to leave them more isolated than ever in the bitter, solitary battle of life.
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
By Edward Albee; directed by Pam MacKinnon; sets by Todd Rosenthal; costumes by Nan Cibula-Jenkins; lighting by Allen Lee Hughes; sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; fight choreography by Nick Sandys; stage manager, Malcolm Ewen. Presented by Steppenwolf Theater Company, Martha Lavey, artistic director; David Hawkanson, executive director. At the Downstairs Theater, 1650 North Halsted Street, Chicago; (312) 335-1650; steppenwolf.org. Through Feb. 13. Running time: two hours.
WITH: Carrie Coon (Honey), Madison Dirks (Nick), Tracy Letts (George) and Amy Morton (Martha).