Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe (Ad Astra)
May 17 – June 1
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe” begins with pre-show songs of the Sinatra sort, appropriate for the era into which audiences will soon be thrown…. A time when self-deprecation and anxiety weren’t the done thing and dinner parties were marathon events with lots of hard liquor in regularly-refreshed drinks. This is the gin-soaked, foul-mouthed adaptation of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe”, a classic of modern theatre (and film), epic in its three act, two intermissions and just over three-hour experience.
For those who don’t know, there is no Virginia Wolfe character in the show. Rather, the title is a pun on the song ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf’ from Walt Disney’s “Three Little Pigs”, with substitution of the celebrated author’s name. Instead there is Martha (Fiona Kennedy), shrill, over-the-top, childish, indulged, middle-aged Martha who refers to her New England College President as daddy and enjoys humiliating her younger associate history professor husband George (Gene Banward). Indeed, from the moment Act One’s fun and games begin, their volatile relationship’s dysfunction is clear; even in front of guests, Martha taunts George insultingly, and he retaliates with a passive aggressive approach.
The display comes about late one night when the pair is joined by an unwitting couple, newly-appointed young academic Nick (Pierce Gordon) and his put-together, to be later pulled-apart, faithful wife Honey (Caitlyn Leo) for late-night drinks after a university faculty party. Things simmer as early conversations circle around small talk about children or lack thereof, but what follows is a long night of drunken recriminations and revelations as Martha and George drag their guests into the bitterness and frustration that comprises their marriage.
More is revealed in Act Two in terms of backstory as the characters interact in one-on-one scenes and Martha and George’s bickering descends into toxicity. Grandstandingly, they play on each other’s weaknesses, vehemently correcting each other for the sake of conflict; Martha belittles her husband by laughing in his face, while George mocks her in verbose commentary of all that she does. It’s all quite unpleasant and clearly a front for coping with some kind of shared trauma. It’s an all-out war and like when coming across a car crash in real life, we can’t help but look away, for this is a show that not only immediately grabs you, but never lets you go.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe” is a long play of many words, which makes its cast’s achievements even more impressive. There are no weak links from a performance perspective. Kennedy is superb as the passionate Martha and is well-matched by Banyard as the enigmatic George, at once pretentious and sanctimonious, but also occasionally compassionate in comfort of his wife.
Leo and Gordon work well as the group’s fresh couple. Gordon, in particular, delivers a nuanced performance, especially in reaction to what is unfolding around him in Act One before he becomes ensnared in his host’s web of declared psychological games like ‘Get the Guest’ and then Martha’s Mrs Robinson-esque seductive advances towards him in George’s presence. There is some comedy amongst the drama, however, which seves as a welcome reprieve, especially evident in the complacency of George’s matter-of-fact observations and taunts.
Every scene is well choreographed to allow the characters to stalk each other around the small living-room set space in all range of physical scenarios. Some dialogue lapses are detected on opening night, but do nothing to divert from audience absorption into the uncomfortable world on stage. Some lighting misfires, however, especially during serious monologues are a little more distracting.
Beneath the bitter, self-destructive relationship at the centre of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe’ are some big themes about reality and illusion, easily transferred from its early 1960s setting to the sensibilities of modern marriages maybe also being sustained by some degree of role-play. Watching its characters batter each other through a three-hour verbal battle of increasingly hostile, appalling behaviour may be exhausting, but it is also an enthralling theatrical experience thanks to its compelling performances.