Theater review: ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ at Mad Cow

By Elizabeth Maupin
Elizabeth Maupin on Theater

Classic American theater has furnished no shortage of dramas about families whose wounds have become their lives.

Tennessee Williams gave us The Glass Menagerie. Eugene O’Neill gave us Long Day’s Journey Into Night. And Edward Albee gave us just about everything he has written, but foremost among them Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a play about a marriage that destroys everything in its path.

Albee’s raucous, corrosive drama can be almost impossible to watch. But visiting director J. Barry Lewis has given Mad Cow Theatre audiences a keen-eyed, penetrating production of this modern classic, with actors Stephan Jones, Peg O’Keef, Timothy Williams and Heather Leonardi in finest form.

Plenty of famous actors have played Albee’s George and Martha: I heard audience members reminiscing about seeing the 1966 movie version, with Richard Burton and an Oscar-winning Elizabeth Taylor, and I remember a terrific version on Broadway, in 2005, with a voluptuous, larger-than-life Kathleen Turner as Martha and the Tony-winning Bill Irwin playing a dry, beaten-down George.

The dynamics are different at Mad Cow, where George and Martha are equal partners in a marriage of monsters, and where the focus turns beyond the embattled pair to a more universal embrace of illusion to mask the truth.

But the story is, of course, the same – a duel nearly to the death between George, a failed history professor at a small New England College, and Martha, his spouse and drinking partner and the daughter of the college’s president. It’s 2 a.m., after yet another party at the president’s house, and George is dismayed to find out that Martha has invited a new young faculty couple for a nightcap at their house.

There’s no such thing as a nightcap, though, with George and Martha, whose drinking reaches epic proportions as their taunts draw blood. It turns out that Nick, a newcomer to the biology department, and his childlike wife Honey have secrets of their own, and that the illusions in these two marriages are about to bust open for good.

Mad Cow’s designers have captured a certain kind of academic setting: Tom Mangieri’s set introduces theatergoers to the cluttered living room of a couple who are both smart and slovenly, and Erin Miner’s lighting brings the eye to the shadows created by someone just before he or she enters a room.

There O’Keef’s Martha casually stuffs stray clothes under a sofa cushion before their visitors arrive. And there Jones’ George comes home from the faculty party distracted and irritated, setting the stage for a battle in which he, finally gets the upper hand.

It’s in the ups and downs of that remarkably physical battle that director Lewis and his actors make their marks. O’Keef’s hearty, pumped-up Martha – “I don’t bray,” she says, braying – may be close to the character you expect (especially if you saw her perform the same role at Theatre Downtown in 1999).

Yet Martha rarely gets the better of Jones’ George, who is utterly controlled yet just as aggressively nasty to his wife as she is to him. Jones’ character is so pissy and malicious, in fact, that you may realize for the first time that the two are not so much in it together as they are in it apart – that Albee’s view of marriage is even more awful than you thought.

At the same time, Williams plays up the often overlooked role of Nick: Here he’s bland, opportunistic and ingratiating, with just enough morals for him to end the play truly appalled. And Leonardi, who makes a wonderful thing of high-strung frivolity, brings those nerves to Honey but also shows a pitiable young woman with no love in her life.

Lewis allows the mood to career just as wildly as it should, from anger to drunken conviviality. But his actors  all find vulnerability underneath all of the drunken carousing, and it’s that vulnerability that makes Virginia Woolf bearable in the end. Albee’s view of marriage may be bleaker than even the bleakest marriage you know, and his characters may be more unnerving than most. But listening to the monosyllables of a broken Martha and George at the close of this play makes you feel for them as you never did before – and makes you reach for that small shred of humanity. If Virginia Woolf holds up a mirror to the audience, that final moment provides the clearest view.

‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

  • What: Mad Cow Theatre production of Edward Albee drama.
  • Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 105 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando.
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 27 (also, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7 and 21).
  • Running time: Three hours 10 minutes, including two intermissions.
  • Cost: $27 general, $25 seniors and students, $15 Mondays.
  • Call: 407-297-8788 Ext. 1.
  • Online: madcowtheatre.com.

Photo: Stephan Jones and Peg O’Keef. Photo by Tom Hurst/Mad Cow Theatre.

Copyright 2011 by Elizabeth Maupin.

2 responses to “Theater review: ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ at Mad Cow

  1. Very very very much looking forward to seeing this production.

  2. MYRON BLATTNER

    I loved the play. I had never seen it before and didn’t know what to expect. I knew it was a “dark” story, but not that “dark – dark”. I left complete drained.

    I can’t imagine a better production anywhere. I thought the cast was wonderful; all perfect choices by the director. One of the best plays that I have seen at the Mad Cow Theatre.