Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? looms large in the collective mind. Born as a Tony Award-winning play from the pen of the great Edward Albee in 1962, it was adapted for the screen four years later. And this is how many people, myself included, were first introduced to this story — with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, by the force of their movie careers, by their off-camera lives together and how devastatingly great they were in the roles, cementing it as iconic.
But one has to forget all that in order to sit down and take it in as a play. Again, it was a work of the stage originally and Ferndale Repertory Theatre's flat-out amazing staging of it will either remind you of that or be greatly revelatory. At just around three hours long, the play never lags but always buzzes, menaces, edges close to uncomfortable truths and then barrels dead-center into a good number of them. And it's to Albee's credit, right alongside FRT's cast, that it does so with a searing edge alongside indisputable comic precision.
George (Daniel Baer) and Martha (Ruthi Engelke), a middle-aged married couple, return to their home around 2 a.m. He's an associate history professor at a New England university and Martha, his longtime wife, is daughter of the university president. They've been at a faculty cocktail party and they arrive home as many couples do from such events: A little (well, fairly) drunk and with somewhat differing ideas of the experience. George would care for nothing more than go to bed or simply have some more highballs, but learns that Martha has invited a younger couple from the soiree — a professor and his wife — over for drinks.
After George and Martha spar and drink (I'd dare you to keep track of how many drinks are poured over three acts but it's impossible), the couple, Nick (Travis J. Morris) and Honey (Holly Portman), eventually arrives. And there aren't many pleasantries beyond the smallest ones with this four-person dynamic — Nick and Honey are on George and Martha's turf and will find themselves playing by their hosts' rules, no matter how demented.
Words aren't wasted here and neither is the smallest gesture, glare or cry. Albee's play is staggeringly wordy but so much is in service of something that comes to pass later. None of this would ignite very well without the right cast. This is a story in which all four of the actors have moments they must carry and yet at the same time everyone has to mesh perfectly together. Baer's George is remarkable — to the untrained eye, this may seem like an easy role but it's not at all and Baer does a brilliant job building its intensity.
What goes on over three acts — with the ebb and flow and shifting power dynamic between George and Martha — is roiling and it takes subtle talent to nail. Like Baer, Engelke is a relative newcomer to local theater and she is outstanding as Martha. Her character is possibly even more challenging, as Engelke has to hit so many emotional keys from beginning to end. Morris does a great job as Nick, and Portman shines in the smaller role as his wife, veering between sheer comedy and darker moments.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is much more than one long argument between a married couple, with another couple joining in, although people may see it that way. They shouldn't. The story propels inevitably to the dark secret at its center and the jousting is what draws everything and everyone closer to that. George and Martha are smart people who know how to draw blood as well as withdraw. Their intelligence, their near-animal instincts, their seemingly innate knowledge of how to get under one other's skin are not the things of any mere argument. George and Martha bellow that they'd be happy to plunge one another into the abyss but, really, neither has any intention of going down that way alone.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plays at the Ferndale Repertory Theatre on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Feb. 3, with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. on Feb. 4. It then plays at the Arcata Playhouse from Feb. 9 through Feb. 17 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on Feb. 11 and Feb. 18. For more information, call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org.
North Coast Repertory Theatre's smart 1980s take on King Lear, with its strong performances and spare sets, runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Feb. 10, and also on Thursday, Feb. 8, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on Jan. 28 and Feb. 4. For more information, call 442-NCRT or visit www.ncrt.net.
Viva Commedia! returns to Dell'Arte's Carlo Theatre Feb. 1 through 3 at 8 p.m. with bawdy, masked improvisational comedy for grown-ups. Call 668-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.
Dell'Arte second-year MFA students bring literary works to stage for Adaptations at the Carlo Theatre from Feb. 15-18. Call 668-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.
David Jervis is a freelance editor and writer living in Arcata.