WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?: Certainly not Tina Packer and Nigel Gore, and they’re not afraid of Edward Albee, either.
Who’s afraid of Edward Albee? The Publick Theatre sure was when, at the 11th hour, the famously exacting author denied the troupe the right to stage Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in a production starring Herculean actor and Shakespeare & Company honcho Tina Packer that had been in the works for a year.
Albee relented, though he demanded more or less the opposite of a campaign-ad testimonial: an announcement in the program that he had not approved the staging. He might think better of his disavowal if he were to see the production (at the BCA Plaza through October 24), because the Publick’s rendition of his iconic 1962 marathon of marital fisticuffs is powerful if unseemly stuff. Then again, the persnickety playwright might just stick to his guns, since director Diego Arciniegas, Packer, and stellar co-star Nigel Gore have conspired to make professorial “bog” George more masculine than is customary and braying Martha, though brassy as ever, more vulnerable. “I cry all the time,” says the irrepressible Martha toward the end of the play, “but deep inside, so no one can see me.” Here the leering, sneering old baggage conveys her emotionality, both hard and soft, almost from the beginning.
Except for that shift in the power struggle between Albee’s warring if co-dependent couple, who are linguistically agile and sling insults scathing enough to peel paint, the production is aptly respectful of the material and its early-1960s academic setting — wherein men would be men, however emasculated, and women would be faculty wives. The allegorically named George and Martha inhabit a comfortably worn New England parlor, skewed picture frames looming like storm clouds above book-strewn shelves and a vintage phonograph, into which lions’ den they have invited professorial golden boy Nick and his “wifey little mouse,” Honey, for a long night’s journey of swilling alcohol and bearing witness as the hosts go at each other tooth and claw, albeit as wittily as Oscar Wilde. (Packer even retains a shade of a British accent — a bit jarring in the sloppily voluptuous, all-American Martha.)
Dahlia Al-Habieli’s set includes a raised sort of vestibule inside the entrance to Albee’s cozy Colosseum, and Arciniegas sometimes uses it as a stage within a stage (notably for Martha’s long encomium to bringing up baby, which is followed by the painful stripping away of her sustaining illusion). But all four players can hold whatever stage they’re on. Packer’s Martha is disoriented or blubbery from time to time, but she’s also both playful and primal. Gore is a relaxed yet forceful George, nailing both his acerb and his bitterly reflective arias. Angie Jepson’s Honey is hilariously insolent when emboldened by brandy, yet piquantly pained when her secrets are betrayed. And square-shouldered, thick-haired Kevin Kaine is a near-perfect Nick: a clean-cut, clean-fighting “light heavyweight” up against a couple of brainier Mike Tysons.