Intelligent people behaving badly. VERY badly.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is set in a New England university in the fictional town of New Carthage. George, a history professor, is married to Martha, the daughter of the university president. They’ve just come from a party at her father’s house. It’s 2AM, but Martha informs George that they have guests coming soon for a post-party drink. Martha has invited Nick, a young new lecturer and his wife, Honey. George isn’t happy, but he pours drinks for Martha and himself from the amply stocked bar. He demurs when Martha describes Honey as the one with the small hips, “The way you like them, George.” But George warns Martha, “Try to keep your clothes on.” He also taunts her, “I’m six years younger than you are. I always have been. I always will be.”
Enter Honey and Nick. Within seconds, George manages to ply them with their first drinks, brandy for Honey and bourbon on the rocks for Nick. Honey is a naïf who has trouble breaking into cliques of academic spouses. She is openly grateful for the invitation to George and Martha’s home. Nick is a wunderkind, 28, blond, athletic build, Masters at 19, Ph.D. in biology, ambitious, with a wandering eye.
George and Martha begin to banter and bicker before the young couple. Their words can seem endearing, but acid often drips from their tone, and daggers are barely sheathed in their looks. Nick and Honey are outclassed by their hosts’ witticisms and unnerved by the intensity of Martha and George’s sniping. Nick however will not be cowed and upbraids George about their behaviour. But George admonishes Nick that, “Martha and I are doing nothing. We’re exercising. That’s all. Walking what’s left of our wits.”
Wit there is aplenty. When Martha complains about George’s lack of ambition, she says that, “He’s IN the History department, but he’s NOT the History department.” George was once the head of the department, but only when more capable men were off to war. He isn’t even a full professor. She had expected to do better with him. “He was the groom, and he was supposed to be groomed” to eventually become her father’s successor.
From Martha’s disdain, Nick decides that George is ineffectual and so directs all his attention to her. When Martha and Honey leave the room, Nick decides that he understands the game and challenges George with, “You have history on your side, and I have biology on my side.” Multiple meanings abound.
But all is not as it seems. Somebody’s lying.
And so the fun and games begin, fuelled by extraordinary quantities of liquor. The first act is titled “Fun and Games”. (You might want to pre-order drinks for the two intermissions. Watching George make many trips to the bar is thirst-inducing.)
Secrets are revealed in the first and second acts as the alcohol loosens tongues. Martha speaks proudly of their son whose 21st birthday in imminent. But why is George so upset with her? Honey is clearly not Nick’s intellectual equal. How have they come to be a couple? In the second act, labelled “Walpurgisnacht” (a witches’ sabbath), the humour turns darker and more bitter. The witty language and double entendres are there, but the claws are unsheathed.
In the third act, we see the train wreck coming, but we can’t look away. George, Martha and Nick are in a battle of wills. Who will win? What price with be inflicted on the others?
Rainville’s performance as the passive/aggressive George benefits from the breadth and depth of his acting career. Rainville portrays the ineffectual and hen-pecked husband as a man who has many hidden weapons at his disposal.
The audience (and Nick) soon decide that Martha wears the pants in the family. Martha is a strong-willed character who gives as good as she gets in the battle of wits with George. Rachel Eugster’s Martha is George’s match. This is the best performance I’ve ever seen from Eugster. She holds her own against Rainville.
Cory Thibert is appropriately conniving as the ambitious and calculating Nick. He has seen the opportunity that Martha affords him and quickly appraises how he can use it to his advantage. Thibert’s good looks and easy familiarity with women fit Nick like a glove.
Grace Gordon is believable as Honey, the closet drinker whose affinity for the bottle Nick tries to hide by labelling her as frail. Gordon seems robust rather than frail and slim-hipped (as Martha, George and Nick repeatedly call her). Are we the audience meant to take these terms as ironic or as euphemisms? It stretches suspension of disbelief.
Director Ian Farthing brings a fine balance to the battle of wits between Martha and George, drawing strong believable performances from both Eugster and Rainville. I expected this from Rainville and was impressed to see this from Eugster. They may be cannon fodder in this war, but Nick and Honey have their own secrets to reveal, and Farthing paces their revelations with the same precision he applies to George and Martha.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? isn’t performed often in Ottawa. (The last professional production was 33 years ago.) It’s a difficult play to perform. The language alternates between raw and blue on the one hand, and witty and nuanced on the other. The last act both fascinates and horrifies.
Farthing has Rainville and Eugster operating at the top of their game here. It’s a helluva script. An exceptional opportunity not to be missed.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Bear & Company is playing at The Gladstone Theatre, remaining performances are Tuesday to Saturday April 12-16 at 7:30PM. Matinee Sunday April 10 at 2:30PM. Adult tickets are $34 (including HST). Senior tickets are $30. and Student/Artist/Unwaged tickets are $20. Click here for more info.