Steppenwolf blows the cobwebs off ‘Virginia Woolf’

As hard as it might be to imagine, the Steppenwolf production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” finds completely new ways to present Edward Albee’s 50-year-old play about the battling academic couple George and Martha.

From By ERIC GRODE, New York Times

Except for a 1976 revival that Mr. Albee himself directed, “Virginia Woolf” was then absent from Broadway until 2005, when Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin starred in a well-received revival. The latest version, a transfer from the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, features Tracy Letts (the author of “August: Osage County”) and one of his “August” stars, Amy Morton. It opens at the Booth Theater on Oct. 13, exactly 50 years after the original.

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Most revivals of the play over the past 40 years have seemed at least slightly haunted by Mike Nichols’ 1966 film version with Elizabeth Taylor in her Oscar-winning performance as Martha and Richard Burton as George.

The movie still crackles with energy, but the approach is more Hollywood than Old Ivy. You never quite believe that the two leads have spent more than 20 years on a sleepy New England college campus or that their late night guests, a new professor and his wife (George Segal and Sandy Dennis), would put up with so many hours of psychodrama from the older couple.

Subsequent stage productions have echoed the over-the-top theatrics with varying degrees of success and most Marthas have tended to be steamrollers who crush their wimpy Georges in the course of the evening (until the worm finally turns and starts hitting his wife below the belt).

Steppenwolf director Pam MacKinnon and her two amazing lead actors, Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, have gone back to square one and found ways to mine the realism in the script that has been covered over by dramatic artifice in so many other productions.

It takes a few minutes to adjust to the much more evenly balanced George and Martha in this production and the toned-down line readings that strip away the melodramatic excesses of other productions.

Perhaps because Morton and Letts have worked together in Chicago for so many years — and played husband and wife in several other plays — I believed in the marriage of George and Martha more than I ever have before.

Morton has toned down Martha’s vitriol in the early scenes — articulate nagging rather than arias of abuse — so the build-up to the Act Three explosions becomes more believable. And there is nothing effete or wimpy in Letts’ powerful approach to George. The two people have stayed together because they are a good match.

The younger couple — Nick and Honey played by Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon — drift into drunken stupors at the same pace as George and Martha so when they hang in there for the duration it feels realistic. And Dirks plays Nick with a sexual aggressiveness that makes his connection with Martha seem inevitable.

This lower-keyed production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is going to be controversial — I’ve already talked to a couple of preview goers who hated it — but it’s exciting to see theater artists take a fresh new approach to a play that had started to feel a little stale. With Pam MacKinnon at the helm, and a terrific quartet of actors, Albee’s portrait of marital gamesmanship has come alive again.

(“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is at the Booth Theatre at 222 West 45th St. in Manhattan.)

Joe Meyers