Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin Star in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The title melody of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a lighthearted spoof of the childhood tune Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Sung in a moment of drunken inspiration by the character Martha, the tune is like the play itself-humorous, ironic and mocking with a frightened, wistful meaning hidden beneath the surface.

Set in the 1960s, the play is the story of two couples, George and Martha and Nick and Honey. The men are professors at an elite university and the women are the professors’ wives. The four seemingly different people are drawn together for one night of exploration, revelation and heavy drinking, which changes their relationships and their lives forever.

After returning home from a faculty party, George (Bill Irwin) and Martha (Kathleen Turner), both intoxicated, introduce the audience to their home and their relationship. One quickly learns that this couple does not have what most would consider a conventional marriage. Instead, they quickly and furiously fight again and again.

They scream and yell, exchange barbs and insults and attack each other’s age, physique and personality. To them, however, this is nothing new; it is the nature of their relationship. After a while, George is ready to call it a night, but Martha informs him they are receiving guests. Nick (David Harbour), a new professor at the college, and Honey (Mireille Enos), are on their way over for an after party.

In a recent interview included in Playbill, Albee revealed that he spent almost six years searching for the right actors to play George and Martha. It is clear from the moment the play begins that it was worth the wait. Irwin and Turner excel as the explosive couple.

Both nominated for Tony Awards, their on-stage chemistry is palpable as they deliver Albee’s dialogue in rapid-fire fashion. Every word they speak to each other, every sly comment they interject and every insult they deliver is charged with meaning and passion.

Irwin, who won the Tony for Best Actor, is quick, quiet and vicious as George. He lurks in the background of the play, stealthily working his way forward until he suddenly seizes control of everyone and everything. His wit and his wisdom are his weapons and he uses them with caution and care.

Turner’s Martha does the opposite. From the moment she steps onstage, she owns the entire show. Her presence commands everyone’s attention and admiration. Turner drunkenly delivers her lines, slurred in her trademark husky voice, as she escapes farther and farther from life and more and more into her drink.

At first, the two are a shocking comparison to the younger couple of Honey and Nick, who appear youthful and innocent. Honest, forthright and completely devoted to each other, they are eager to befriend the older pair. This illusion is soon shattered, however, as the hours pass and the drinks are poured.

The more alcohol they consume, the more open the characters become, and the more secrets are revealed about their personalities and their relationships. As time passes, Nick and Honey’s faÃ?§ade begins to deteriorate and the true nature of their relationship is exposed.

It is very likely that this starry-eyed young couple could end up just like George and Martha-or worse. When Martha lets down her guard and opens up, however, she reveals the dynamics of her relationship with her husband, sharing how she and George actually need each other.

Intimacy of emotion is what frightens the characters of this play. As Nick, Honey, George and Martha battle it out again and again, they seem to recognize the potential for the same connection in their own lives.

When it was originally performed, Albee’s play was a shocking scandal to audiences accustomed to Leave It To Beaver and I Love Lucy. Its graphic swearing and frank discussion of sexuality attracted and intrigued many, but shocked and repulsed others. While current audiences may be indifferent to the language, the content of the story-the fear of emotion and honesty, the escape from reality, and the disintegration of relationships-is still heartbreaking.

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