Sacramento’s B Street Theatre is staging “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” – a darkly humorous portrait of a failing marriage, brimming with booze and bickering.
The landmark play explores the dark underbelly of two dysfunctional marriages. It won a Pulitzer Prize and netted multiple Tony Awards in 1963, and a movie version picked up several Oscars in 1966. Playwright Edward Albee really lets it all hang out.
The year is 1962, in a conservative university town, specifically the home of a history professor, littered with term papers waiting to be graded. The time is 2 a.m., and the professor and his wife are just returning from a faculty party. As they stagger in, it’s clear that she is more than a little buzzed.
She asks for more gin, and soon, they welcome a younger couple – a newly-hired biology professor and his giddy wife. It’s time for another round.
George: Let’s see, we’ve got ice, you’re taking care of yourself, that’s good, that’s good, I’ll just hooch up Martha here, and then we will be all set.
They keep drinking, until someone gets queasy, and dashes for the bathroom. The younger professor is now slurring his words.
Nick: Wow, after a while, you don’t get any drunker, do you?
George: Well, you do. But it’s different. Things slow down. You get sodden. Unless you throw up like your wife, and then you can start all over again.
But the party chatter keeps getting abruptly derailed, as the world-weary history professor and his cranky wife gleefully cut each other down.
George: The reason that our son ran away all the time was because Martha here used to corner him.
Martha: Oh, I never cornered the son of a bitch in my life.
George: He used to run up to me when I would get home from work, and he would say, Mommy’s always coming at me.
George: It’s true! You were always coming at him. I found it very embarrassing.
Nick: If it’s so embarrassing, why are you talking about it?
They get so wasted they mimic each other and trade insults.
George: I will not be made mock of!
Nick: I will not be made mock of!
George: I will not!
Martha: You want to know what big, brave Georgie did?
George: You will not say this!
Martha: The hell I won’t! You keep away from me, you bastard!
There is a difference between the 50-year-old movie (with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) and Albee’s original play. The play has an additional hour of gritty dialog, and language that Hollywood sanitized. Seen live, the bellowing and brawling has even more impact.
In this production, B Street veterans Elisabeth Nunziato and Kurt Johnson give bravura performances as the older couple, steeped in cruelty and anguish. The set design looks and feels like the early 1960s, including ever-present cigarettes and ashtrays.
Be advised, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is no walk in the park – it’s three-and-a-half hours long, with two intermissions, and it is exceedingly bleak. But even though this venerable script is nearly six decades old, it still hits you as a fresh, visceral theater experience, and a great American play – and that’s the mark of a classic. This production by the B Street Theatre really does deliver the goods.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” continues at Sacramento’s B Street Theatre through Oct. 29.
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