Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
by Edward Albee
Directed by John Contini
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
February 20, 2015
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an American theatre classic that I had never actually seen on stage before. I have to admit now that I’m feeling much more like a theatre geek than a critic writing this review, because ever since I heard that St. Louis Actors’ Studio, one of St. Louis’s better small theatre companies, was going to be producing this show, I’ve been looking forward to seeing it. I didn’t get to see it opening weekend because I was out of town, although when I finally did get over to the Gaslight Theatre to catch this production, I discovered it was well worth the anticipation. With strong, dynamic staging and a top-notch cast of veteran St. Louis performers, this is a production worthy of the play’s illustrious reputation.
This is a brutal play to watch, no question. It delves into the lives and emotions of its four characters with deft precision, baring all the raw emotions and challenging the preconceived notions and perceptions of its characters. Set in a university town, professor George (William Roth) and his brassy wife, the university president’s daughter Martha (Kari Ely), start out with seemingly good-natured bickering as they discuss a party they attended earlier that evening. Eventually, Martha announces that guests will soon be arriving–a new young professor, Nick (Michael Amoroso) and his wife, Honey (Betsy Bowman). When the younger couple eventually arrives, the evening starts with a semblance of politeness but then gradually descends into chaos, madness and despair as George and Martha take turns challenging and berating their guests and one another, and ultimately deeply held secrets are revealed and the characters’ motives and natures are explored.
This play explores the emotions and lives of its characters with precision. There’s a lot of sharp, biting comedy as well as gut-wrenching drama. This is a well-known, oft-performed play for a reason. It deals with universal issues of hope, failure, expectations and regrets, and it provides an ideal opportunity for actors to explore a full range of emotion. As staged at STLAS by director John Contini with dynamic energy and palpable tension, the whole proceeding is riveting, as emotions are laid bare and confrontations ebb and flow, leading to a devastatingly honest and powerful conclusion.
The cast is simply surperb. Ely gives a master class as Martha, with a fully committed, raw and deeply affecting performance that’s alternately brash, flirtatious, histrionic and defeated. Roth matches her moment by moment as the seemingly mild-mannered George, who can be both self-deprecating and surprisingly cruel. Amoroso is strong as the occasionally cocky, occasionally self-doubting Nick, and Bowman, in a difficult role as the outwardly ditzy Honey, infuses her portrayal with an underlying deep sadness that is thoroughly compelling. There’s spark, danger and energy in the chemistry between these performers, and particularly Roth and Ely as a couple who challenge one another out of deep-seated pain and regret, although the ghost of affection is still there as well.
Patrick Huber has designed an excellent set for the small STLAS space–a detailed representation of a cluttered, careworn professor’s home. The muted colors of the set suggest the serious and sometimes dreary tone of the play. The 1960’s setting is well-reflected in Teresa Doggett’s costumes, and Huber’s lighting is intense and effective as well.
This is one of those plays that is basically required viewing for serious theatre fans, and I’m very glad that my first experience seeing this play live was through this outstanding production. So far, the theatre season in St. Louis has been relatively strong, and I’ve seen some very good plays. This production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? however, is about the closest to a flawless production as I’ve seen all year. It’s a truly remarkable piece of theatre, and there’s only one weekend left to see it. I highly advise not missing this first-rate production from St. Louis Actors’ Studio.