Acorn bares souls in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Illusions + pretenses
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  November 16, 2011

theater2_VirginiaWoolf1_mai
AT EACH OTHER’S THROATS Standing up and facing the darkness in Albee’s Woolf.

Edward Albee's heavyweight Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a horror story. Over three hours of drunken devolution we peer ever deeper, as if into a shuttered back room of secret atrocities, into the decay, depravity and derangement of a marriage founded on a presumed bastion of civilization: academia. As part of Acorn Productions' Studio Series, in Westbrook, Michael Levine directs Albee's drama of two university couples and strange repulsions in the afterparty of a faculty gathering.

Everybody's already been drinking prophylactically for hours when ambitious young professor Nick (the Phoenix's own Nicholas Schroeder) and his sweet, go-go-booted wife Honey (April Singley) show up at the home of the older George (Paul Haley) and Martha (Kerry Razor). George is an aging, "ineffectual" history professor and Martha the daughter of the university's powerful president, and we immediately see power, and George's lack of it, as key in Martha's ceaseless taunts. Again and again she orders him back to the bar for more gin, at the same time belittling him for his subservience. "You know, if you existed," she spits, "I'd divorce you." But George is also a player in their vicious taunts and "games," which they soon enough turn on their guests. And Nick and Honey, through a combination of ambition, drunkenness, fascination, and lust, find themselves helpless to leave.

Schroeder and Singley are perfectly cast as the fresh-faced young couple. In Schroeder's hands, Nick's handsome confidence vies nicely with his arrogance, his decency with his self-righteous ego; he makes it clear that Nick holds the same corrupt seeds that have overgrown his hosts. As his heartbreakingly hopeful wife, Singley conveys from the first how hard Honey tries, how well she wants to think of people, how openly and candidly she wants harmony. She does wonders with her eyes and brow as, smiling trustingly, Honey tries to grasp George and Martha's riddly subtexts, and her hurt is truly wrenching when she's finally, brutally brought into the fray.

Honey is utterly oblivious to the subtly twisty wit of George, whom Haley plays with a restrained, puttering comedy. His George is like a funny uncle, vaudevillian and understated, muttering deadpan puns and non sequiturs half to himself, as if from long and insular habit. He is aching evidence of how a man's intelligence can be subverted into feckless, cruel one-liners. But his George can also be disarmingly engaging, inscrutable, and manipulative, qualities that keep Nick vacillating between camaraderie, curiosity, and disgust for his host. Haley's controlled, professorial nebbishness contrasts well against Razor's brassy Martha, and it makes his rare spikes in volume all the more intense.

We see Haley's George braced against Martha from the very beginning, though her virulence doesn't always feel deep-seated or malevolent enough to justify it. Razor's Martha is strident, funny, and carnal, but she doesn't always convey the depth or intricacy of the woman's inner damage, her metastasized hurt and viciousness. In Martha's most famous monologue, she talks to herself, half-delirious, speaking both parts in a dialogue between herself and George. It should be a haunting scene, a glimpse straight into her sickness, but here it plays more like poignant comedy. Razor's strength is how piercingly she conveys her love and need for George, as well as the profound sadness that has wrenched their marriage into such twisted shapes.

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