War of Words 

Rep’s skillful staging of Albee classic is a testament to the durability of a great play

Rep’s skillful staging of Albee classic is a testament to the durability of a great play

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Presented by Tennessee Repertory Theatre

Through Feb. 8 at TPAC’s Johnson Theater

Like any great play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf holds you hostage. Watching grown-ups sniping bitterly at each other, playing out their neuroses in a public forum and often acting just plain ugly can be compelling stuff, and so it is in the new Tennessee Repertory Theatre production currently playing at TPAC.

It’s been 42 years since Woolf burst upon the theater scene, evidence that a truly great work of art has a chance to stand for decades. In fact, with the sole exception of some banter about telegrams, there is nothing perceptibly dated about Edward Albee’s script, which offers a direct and uncompromising look at marital dynamics and human psychological gamesmanship on a frighteningly adult level.

This is a play about culturally privileged people, who manage to prove that no class is exempt from pathos or the sad mismanagement of their interior lives—or even, finally, from the dim but very real hope that beyond all the angst is eventually where self-acceptance lies.

The play was written in 1962, during the decade that spawned a best-selling pop-psych book, Games People Play, authored by transactional analysis guru Eric Berne, who was fascinated with games, pastimes, rituals and the human existential plight. Games are certainly what we get here, as two married couples from the university set—one middle-aged, the other younger—spend an evening getting to know one another and end up digging deeply inside their own psyches.

Woolf offers the viewer a feast of interpretative opportunity. It accepts a serious archetypal challenge—pitting man vs. woman, young vs. old, experience vs. naivete, fantasy vs. reality, barrenness vs. fertility, success vs. failure, sobriety vs. soddenness, and control vs. chaos. The elemental fascination Albee creates is within our desire to watch the games unfold and, maybe, by evening’s end, determine winners and losers.

The three acts are carefully constructed, feature dynamic and devastating dialogue, and are laid out as a template for the combative emotional action about to occur: “Fun and Games,” “Walpurgisnacht” (a reference to the ancient German festival that celebrates the triumph of spring over winter and is marked by numerous rituals to drive off evil spirits) and “The Exorcism.”

On his way out as Rep artistic director, David Grapes can proudly stand behind his new staging of the Albee classic, the first of the author’s works ever to be presented at the Rep. (Grapes also brought Mamet and Pinter to the Rep for the first time during his tenure.) Grapes’ directorial choices appear sound throughout, and he’s assembled a very solid cast to tackle the play’s daunting intensity and wide attitudinal demands.

Mark Cabus is excellent as seedy, 46-year-old history prof George, subtly (and at times less so) wielding tremendous power over his domain. George appears weak, dissipated and emasculated when the play opens, but by the time the game is afoot, he draws upon vast intellectual weaponry to contend with seemingly shrewish fiftysomething wife Martha (Pam Wild) and the younger visiting couple, Nick (Grant Goodman) and Honey (Misty Lewis). Cabus broodingly (and quite successfully) underplays many moments, evoking bitter laughs with his dry, playful humor, then saving his more murderous tones for when his killer instinct is provoked. It’s a consistent and controlled performance. So is Wild’s; she wrings sufficient bile out of her character—chastising her hubby, emotionally castrating Nick—then believably displays the critical weakness and insecurity underneath all her vitriol.

Goodman provides a matinee idol balance to Cabus’ scruffy jadedness, and while his character is often pretty passive, he finds key moments to exhibit assertiveness. Lewis is making her Rep debut. It’s notable if not completely auspicious. The script implies that the character of Honey is mousy and skinny. Try as she might, Lewis can’t hide the fact that she’s attractive and shapely. That said, she ably captures Honey’s inexperience and lack of awareness, while also effectively hinting at the character’s manipulative mind-set. But Lewis would be even better if she could cop some of Cabus’ knack for subtlety and playing the levels. She also has a penchant for the occasional giggly vocal trill, which seems out of place here. Nevertheless, this is a vital performance, albeit one that might have been directed with more precision.

The action takes place on Julie Meador’s four-sided (“in the square”) living room set, which is period-appropriate (complete with liquor cabinet, practically a fifth cast member) but more notable for the claustrophobic boxing-ring ambience it creates. Elizabeth A. Deem’s moody lighting matches the play’s darker spirit, and Darin F. Karnes’ sound design gives us some Bernard Hermann-esque incidental music, characterized by tense violin strokes.

This Woolf is serious theater, featuring professional-caliber contributions from every collaborative quarter.

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