"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" by Edward Albee, at Sixth Street Playhouse, Santa Rosa CA

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
A play in three acts by Edward Albee
Sixth Street Playhouse, GK Hardt Theatre, Santa Rosa CA

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo
Photo (from left): Paul Huberty, Caitlin Dissinger, Chris Sigrist, Liz Jahren

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at Sixth Street Playhouse is complex, entertaining and deeply disturbing, not for the faint of heart. Blistering insults are hurled like acid across the stage, but things are not as they seem. Just when you think you know who the characters are and what drives them, the emotional landscape begins to move like a slow-rolling earthquake and you realize: everything you know is wrong.

Edward Albee’s searing dark comedy-drama is approaching its 50th anniversary. It was first performed in October 1962 at the Billy Rose Theater on Broadway in New York City and garnered five Tony Awards the following year.

Glancing at the program, there’s a hint of what Albee has in store: Act I is called “Fun and Games”, Act II is “Walpurgisnacht” and Act III, “Exorcism”. All of the action takes place in Martha and George’s living room, in a small college town somewhere in New England. Martha is the university president’s daughter - middle-aged, abusive, sloppy drunk and loud. Her husband George, understated and bitterly reserved, is a history professor at the university. It’s 2 a.m., and we learn that Martha has invited Nick, the new young biology professor, and his wife Honey over for “drinks” after a faculty party. They get much, much more than they ever could have expected.

This can’t be an easy piece to perform. It’s also painful to watch, with many wince-inducing moments comingled with bawdy humor. The accomplishments of director and cast are nothing short of amazing, on both a physical and emotional level. Liz Jahren as Martha commands the stage from the moment she lurches through the front door in the opening scene bellowing “What a dump!” Paul Huberty as the acerbic George underplays his role, maybe a bit too much in the beginning, but soon is more than a match for the boozily blustering Martha. Jahren and Huberty create the sense that the intimacy they use as a weapon against each other arises from genuine love.

Unsuspecting guests Nick and Honey start off as innocent bystanders and evolve into collateral damage. Chris Sigrist was good in the role of Nick. Caitlin Dissinger’s Honey turns from meek to sublime, helped by more than a little brandy along the way, and is an absolute treat to watch.

Director Michael Fontaine has a firm grasp of the story’s undercurrents and hidden subtexts. His staging was simple, and for the most part he kept the pacing taut as a tightrope. There were only a couple of places where the tightrope began to sag a bit, but had no effect on the end result. The audience is left jolted as if struck by lightning.

The standing ovation at the end of the opening-night performance of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is well-deserved. It’s a fabulous achievement and a night you won’t soon forget.

When: October 1 to October 24, 2010
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays beginning October 7;
2 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Saturdays beginning October 9.
Tickets: $15 to $32
Location: 6th Street Playhouse – GK Hardt Theatre, 52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa CA
Phone: 707-523-4185
Website: www.6thstreetplayhouse.com