Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

The chance to see Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin (as well as the rest of the Tony-winning Broadway revival cast) play Edward Allbee’s masterpiece of drunken manipulation, was not something I was going to miss.  I ran out (or more accurately, logged in) and bought tickets as soon as they went on sale.  And, I’m glad I did.

I’ve always had a weird affection for this play.  Heretofore I’d only ever seen the classic Mike Nicholls’ directed black-and-white film version starring Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.  And while that film is remarkable, it can’t hold a candle to seeing the play performed live on stage.

The immediacy of the live performance really brings out the tension of the situation, and with good actors in the roles, you really think that anything could happen, and there’s a fear-factor there that’s not missing, but muted in the film.

The performances were, across the board, fantastic.  I saw an interview with Kathleen Turner where she said that typically in this play, one or two of the performances will dominate, but in this one, you really had a sense of four equals.  How very right she was, and how much more interesting that made it.  When it’s not just George and Martha dominating everything, you realize that they too are vulnerable, and that makes the whole experience more layered and intriguing.

Another comment Turner made in that interview was how this production brought out the comedy in the piece.  I must admit, I was puzzled at first, because the film is anything but comedic.  However, once again, she was right.  There were lots of laughs, and in a play as “dark” as Woolf, the audience appreciated having the opportunity to break (some of) the tension.  I don’t think I ever realized exactly how dry and witty the play was before.

Kathleen Turner was brilliant as the boozy, bawdy Martha.  She’s put on some weight, remains rather tall, and her voice is huskier than ever.  The effect is that she’s increasingly looking a little like a drag version of herself.  To here credit though, she’s growing older very gracefully, resisting the urge to resort to surgery and Botox to prevent the inevitable.  She’s embracing it, and as Martha, that makes for an imposing presence on stage.

The big surprise is Bill Irwin as George.  He won a Tony for this performance on Broadway, and I can see why.  While Martha has all her cards on the table and just keeps going bigger and bolder as the show progresses, George has to keep everything inside, and only hint at the seething anger he feels.  Every once in a while, there’s an eruption, and the result is spellbinding.  Especially when you consider this is the same Bill Irwin who mimed and prat-falled his way through cinematic fluff like Stepping Out, My Blue Heaven, and Bobby McFarren’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” video.

If only every evening out at the theatre could be this good.

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