If the title of a play takes the form of a question, could it be a sign that the work will ask its audience to do something beyond being entertained? Filled with harsh social commentary that slowly burns its way out of a bag of magic tricks (constantly switching fiction for reality and reality for fiction), Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? definitely raises the possibility.
In the dark, intimate Planet Ant Theatre, a local production of Albee’s 1963 Tony Award-winner maintains its potential for intense engagement and an air of frustrating mystery as it carefully retraces the question marks central to the play’s concerns: What is real? What is not real? Who can afford to answer?
The theater seats only about 50 people. And the walls and ceiling painted pitch-black make the space appear even tighter, more enclosed. It’s an intensifying place to see Virginia Woolf, a play that is, at moments, a suffocating trap itself.
Stage lights go up. George (Mark Rademacher) and Martha (Susan Berg) do a drunken post-party stumble from the front lobby to a very believable set, a perfectly American, middle-class living room circa 1960, as ugly as it is inviting. The dull-golden fabric sofa is positioned behind an aging coffee table and in front of several serious-looking bookshelves stocked almost as fully as the end table, which is cluttered with an assortment of partially drained liquor bottles huddled around an ice bucket. Even under the bright lights, everything in the room manages to look gray and sad.
It takes only a short part of the first act, “Fun and Games,” for Rademacher to fully slouch into George’s exasperated character, an aging history professor sick with apathy. He glazes over, like a zombie or a sleepwalker, as Berg blows up into full-strength Martha, rough-edged and brassy, with desperate appetites.
Berg, through reckless gestures and spastic uninhibited energies, conjures a fervent bitterness that stings the eyes like a bad smell as she launches into Martha’s manic “What a dump!” tirade. All the while, the ice cubes clinking in her rocks glass make a delicate music. She, of course, fishes them out and eats them up.
By the time the couple’s unfortunate guests — Honey (Alana Dauter) and Nick (Travis Reiff) — arrive, the fiery tension between George and Martha has been ignited. As George opens the door, the guests are visually assaulted by his wife posed in a vulgar half-squat with both of her middle fingers jutting up toward heaven, flipping George off for dawdling.
The Newlyweds — Honey, a neurotic house pet of a woman, and Nick, a new biology instructor — are still too young to have faced the horrific side of matrimony, at least as it exists between their more seasoned hosts. Naive and tripping over their own small courtesies, the couple ends up trapped in this domestic hell for the night.
Have they been sabotaged by their own desires to make good with the history professor and his brash, lascivious older wife, who is also the dean’s daughter? Or are they secretly getting some voyeuristic thrill out of watching George and Martha carry on like two caged lions vying for the same hunk of raw meat? (“Violence! Violence!”) Either way, or some of each, the two characters attempt to rail against the nonsensical while being seduced by it.
Dauter and Reiff offer up a satisfying swig of wide-eyed disbelief and carefully polished denial. Honey smooths her dress and softens almost every utterance with a breathy “Yes, dear.” Playing the simp, who rests safe and sound in her own feigned ignorance, Dauter must at first communicate by facial expressions, intonations and well-timed gasps and giggles. But she unravels tragically and skillfully as the flow of brandy carries her character off into the unbridled madness of the second act, “Walpurgisnacht,” and the personal apocalypse of the third act, “The Exorcism.” There her hysterics come off as frighteningly real as Reiff’s “aw-shucks” Midwest boyishness.
A compelling and puzzling piece of domestic-centered drama, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? still packs the power to confound its audience as much as it crystallizes questions about happiness, relationships, truth and human nature. With its 1960s set and sensibilities, the play wears new nostalgic charms for 2002, as it presents a sort of parade of retro-dysfunction, where brutality is served in badly decorated suburban living rooms by the martini glass.
Planet Ant’s production of the play, directed by the theater’s new artistic director, York R. Griffith, is uncut and stays as true as possible to the original script. The trick shotgun used in the play has traditionally projected an umbrella or parasol. In this version, however, it conspicuously spits out an American flag.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
by Edward Albee
through Feb. 24
Planet Ant Theatre
2357 Caniff, Hamtramck
Admission is $15; $10 for students.
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays: 8 p.m.; Sunday matinee: 2 p.m.