1 Corinthians has much to say on the subject of love; indeed, the well-known verse may be among the most popular of wedding readings, with its timeless refrain of “Love is patient, love is kind,” perfect for newlyweds, poised on the threshold of love and new lives. The wisdom of the scripture also shows us that love can be a travail, as the weight of years accrues and bears down, battering hopes and dreams if not crushing them outright. Yet through such dark times our endurance is often born of love, even if it offers what can seem a poor reflection of its original promise; a view “through a glass, darkly,” in the famous verse’s terms.
Edward Albee knew something about darkness and love when he penned Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, his celebrated drama that bows this month at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre in an electrifying production directed by Jenny Sullivan. The play has enjoyed multiple runs on Broadway, garnering numerous Tony awards, and the 1966 Mike Nichols film was honored with four Oscars®. While celebrated, the work was also met with controversy; Albee’s play was selected for the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for drama, but the award’s trustees objected to the play’s themes and profanity, and subsequently no Prize was awarded in that year. By the same token, the film is credited with being responsible for Jack Valenti’s creation of the MPAA film rating system that largely endures to this day.
Virginia Woolf centers around a mediocre academic — George — whose life and career seem to be circling the drain. The fact is rendered inescapable as it’s underscored — even commemorated — by his wife Martha’s unrelenting, caustic commentary. When a young professor and his wife accept Martha’s invitation for late evening drinks after a faculty mixer, they get far more than they bargained for in their hosts’ bitter, no-holds-barred repartee that ultimately smashes such social niceties as propriety and dignity and brings each of them in turn to their knees.
While the couple is styled after real-world Albee acquaintances, a New York socialite couple whose marathon alcoholic salons were legendary in their day, the couple’s namesakes are thought to obviously be the nation’s “first couple”, George and Martha Washington. Such radical re-styling of the parents of our nation, in such a thoroughly dark and contemporary idiom can, in retrospect, be seen as a most cogent preview of the social explosion that was to follow.
Virginia Woolf is challenging theater, to be sure — peppered as it is with coarse language and social savagery; and though it’s liberally laced with wry humor, it’s not for the faint of heart. Yet in challenging times – either those for which it was first intended or to this very day, it offers altogether compelling lessons on life and love, serving them up in a staccato rhythm of wit and pathos that makes for an engrossing evening and a true theatrical adventure.
“When you come into the theater,” celebrated playwright David Mamet once noted, “you have to be willing to say, ‘We're here to undergo a communion, to find out what the hell is going on in this world.’ If you're not willing to say that, what you get is entertainment instead of art, and poor entertainment at that.” Mamet could well have been speaking of the deeply compelling art of this production: of Joe Spano’s George, who, just when he seems beaten, can roar like a lion; of Karyl Lynn Burns’s Martha and her rapier tongue, flitting from social sadist to crafty coquette and back again; of Jason Chanos’ and Angela Goethal’s turns as the unwitting playmates Nick and Honey, who prove to be altogether more than grist for Martha’s malignant social mill.
While the work feels contemporary, the themes are old, indeed; it’s been more than 150 years since Thoreau noted, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. An unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.” Thoreau would have well recognized the games of George and Martha for what they were, and yet they are not without love — and therein lies the heart of the matter, for Virgina Woolf is a love story from start to finish, offing us a look into a ‘dark glass’ that reflects our own lives and loves. As we find in that glass, and in each of our own hearts an echo of George, Martha, Nick and even Honey, perhaps we also might hear once again the refrain of 1 Corinthians, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, but have not love, I am nothing.” In the end, no matter the indignation and woe, it’s love by which George and Martha are redeemed, and it’s by that same measure that we all, sooner or later, must stand.