Beth Wilmurt as Martha, David Sinaiko as George. Megan Trout as Honey, Josh Schell as Nick in Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf by the Shotgun Players. Photo: Pak Han
Beth Wilmurt as Martha, David Sinaiko as George. Megan Trout as Honey and Josh Schell as Nick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf by the Shotgun Players. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Fifty-four years after its Broadway debut, the award-winning Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee (1928-2016) hasn’t lost any of its strength and force. The alcohol-fueled psychological mêlée among George, Martha, Nick and Honey retains its full intensity and potency. Without the tight direction by Mark Jackson and the excellent performances by Beth Wilmurt, (Martha) David Sinaiko (George), Josh Schell (Nick) and Megan Trout (Honey), that might not have been the case. After all, in the wrong hands, the drama’s acrimony could easily be exaggerated into a SNL sketch. But no worries; this performance succeeds beyond expectations. I sat on the edge of my seat, totally engrossed during the entire three-act, three-hour performance.

After a university faculty party given by Martha’s father, the university president, long-married Martha and George are visited by a younger couple, Nick, a 28-year old university biologist and his unsophisticated wife, Honey. As the long night wears on, Martha and George bitterly attack each other’s psychological sensitivities with biting and sarcastic wit, as Nick and Honey first observe and finally participate in the virulent dissection of Martha and George’s marriage. Soon, the cracks in Nick and Honey’s own relationship are revealed, as the games that pit illusion against reality escalate to a dramatic climax.

Albee’s ingenious and erudite dialogue adds a dynamic and spirited flair to the drama. It’s delivered in a spontaneous and authentic way with characters interrupting each other in lifelike repartee. In this beautifully crafted play, one must listen carefully to grasp the multiple layers beneath the pathos of George and Martha.

Josh Schell as Nick, Beth Wilmurt as Martha, David Sinaiko as George. Photo Pak Han
Josh Schell as Nick, Beth Wilmurt as Martha, David Sinaiko as George. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Written during the U.S.’s transition from the slumbering 1950s to the heightening Cold War of the early 1960s, there are many political and sociological overtones to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Aside from the obvious historical relevance of their names, George and Martha live in New Carthage, named after the warlike city-state that fell at the end of the Punic Wars in 146 BC. And George, a history professor (actually merely an assistant professor, as Martha reminds him) loses himself reading Spengler’s The Decline of the West while Martha and Nick sneak upstairs for a tryst.

Modern religion is also skewered by references to Honey’s father, a Man of God, who made tons of money courtesy of his generous followers. And Nick, the biologist, is criticized for splicing chromosomes that may create an uber-race. It’s the first time I’ve heard the word scientist used as a curse.

One aspect of the drama that completely passed me by when I saw the original production is the plight of the women characters. Now it seems so obvious that had bright and trenchant Martha been living today, she would have taken over the university’s presidency from her father or, at a minimum, she would have been running one of its academic departments. Instead, she devolved into an aimless, frustrated, lonely, self-hating alcoholic. Martha and Honey are primarily valued for their child-producing capabilities. Without children, they were considered, and considered themselves, inferior.

One word about the stage set. The light wood two-story backdrop works very well, especially the attractive main floor bar. The light wood stage is raised so high, however, that the actors must take a large awkward step to get on and off of it. I found that a bit disconcerting. Aside from some steps to aid the actors on and off the stage, a few chairs for the actors would have been nice. To have the characters sit on the floor or steps or have to stand for the three-hour production seemed to make them more uncomfortable than they already are. Perhaps that’s the idea, but it didn’t work for me.

In a 1966 interview, Edward Albee related seeing the words Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? scrawled on a mirror in a West Village bar. He said: “When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again. And of course, who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf means who’s afraid of the big bad wolf . . . who’s afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical, university intellectual joke.”

Shotgun Players has done a brilliant job in producing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Kudos to director Mark Jackson and actors Beth Wilmurt and David Sinaiko for capturing the essence of this complex, still vital drama. This is a great play extremely well done. I highly recommend it.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is playing nightly at the Ashby Stage through, Nov. 13, and in repertory through Jan. 2017. For information visit Shotgun Players’ website.

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...