Four hours, four people and one living room sounds more like an endurance test than a play. Few plays manage to be thoroughly engrossing for this length of time, and fortunately, Rachel Watson’s ’03 production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is one of them.
The play, written by Edward Albee, owes its success to Watson’s confident and capable direction and the cast’s heartfelt performances. The development of the four characters and interplay of their personalities form the core of the play. The cast balances a facade of sardonic humor and flippancy with the raw, often painful truth behind their relationships. As the play progresses, a very ordinary domestic scene dissolves into a social nightmare and every new revelation exposes a little more of the absurdity of life.
George (Ran Aubrey Frazier ’03) is a history professor at a small New England university in New Carthage. In the first scene, he and his wife Martha (Hali Eliza ’03) spontaneously begin to dance in their living room. It is quickly apparent that they care deeply for each other, but from this point on their relationship degenerates into a nasty quarrels. When they invite acquaintances Nick and Honey to their home, the hosts’ argument escalates as they try and go one step further to humiliate each other in front of their guests.
The cozy and somewhat familiar living room without walls provides a perfect “realistic” setting for the night’s descent into the absurd. Battling the conventional expectations of the American dream — kids, a dog, and a white picket fence — the play illuminates the complex reality that lurks behind this illusion. Eventually, the illusion, whether to outsiders or between husband and wife, break down. The real problems of the marriage become clear: George’s lack of professional success in the shadow of his father-in-law (who is the president of the university) and their having a child. Even Nick and Honey’s sense of normalcy erodes to reveal stark truths underlying their own relationship.
Eliza’s rendition of Martha makes the show — it’s a riveting performance rooted in her gut. Every “damn right baby” is forceful and on target, but still displays the weak underbelly of Martha’s domineering character. Sprawled out on the armchair in her flowing gown, cigarette dangling from crimson lips, her brash “shut up and listen to me — sexy” is delivered perfectly. Her tone turns quickly from bossy to flirty, transforming crudeness to seduction with a slight lowering of her eyes.
Watson clearly emphasizes the rapport between Eliza and her co-star Frazier. Their nitpicking subtly crescendos to heated full-blown wars, yet their love is never completely buried by their rage. Furthermore, each character’s relation to the other three players is careful and taut.
Although Frazier works well amongst the other characters, he misses the mark as George. Some of his louder lines lack feeling and he doesn’t appear to put too much thought into his non-speaking moments. Nonetheless, he shines in some scenes, particularly when the events of the play seem to push him to a breaking point. One such occasion is when Martha is about to seduce Nick in the kitchen — Frazier is unnerved, clearly upset despite his quiet restraint. He finally snaps, violently throwing a book across the room, and begins to sob.
Colette Gunn-Graffy ’05 makes the most of her role as Honey, a “frail, slim-hipped” ditz. Her shrill laughter and vacant repetition of sentences all go to show Honey is not the sharpest tool in the shed, and make for some of the play’s funniest moments. Despite being sick in the bathroom for half the play, Gunn-Graffy offers the audience some insight into her character, showing them that she often chooses to be ignorant.
Nick (Tim Smith ’05) is the least varying and most sane character (or so he thinks). Smith lets Nick’s stubborn pride and disdain for everyone around him come across clear and strong. However, at times he is in danger of seeming two-dimensional.
Each character develops intriguingly as the night spirals into the bizarre and illusions are torn down. The audience gets increasingly drawn into the worlds of these four people. The stellar performances and excellent direction make “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” worth every minute.