Santa Ana College is producing Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?That's jaw-dropping on two fronts. First, Albee is notoriously reticent about granting rights to the play to any theater, professional or amateur. Second, what college other than Sadist U. would dare subject young, green actors to a play like this—one of the ugliest pictures of middle-aged marital discord ever written?
But after convincing Albee, or his "people," that the cast wasn't composed of your typical first- or second-year college students, the school secured the rights. Three of the four roles are played by instructors at the college, including the dean of fine arts and the theater-arts chairwoman.
And while you could argue that a college theater department should spend its resources on its students, you can't argue that this isn't a valid production, and even an important one. If one mission of a college theater department is to educate its audience, this production surely does that, reminding us why this play so electrified—and horrified—audiences in 1962, and why Albee is such a fascinating writer.
On the surface, Albee's play is about the decaying marriage of George, a history professor at a New England university, and Martha, the daughter of the university president. For 23 years, these two have been married, and it's been 23 years on the lip of hell. Both are boozers in possession of lacerating wits, and they communicate through a combination of condescension and intense cruelty. They're brilliant and sad and pathetic and apparently trapped.
Into this incendiary household come two visitors—Nick, a young biology professor new to the university, and his wife, Honey. Though apparently more naive and cuddlier, they have their own secrets and delusions to deal with.
Rotten marriage is merely the metaphor Albee uses to attack the illusion and hypocrisy of society at large. He rips the higher-education system (including an eerily prescient diatribe against the dangers of unlocking the genetic code), practical morality, and the lies and corruption that underpin the very foundation of this country. Albee says we're all like George and Martha—the names are no coincidence—desperately clinging to illusions in order to avoid looking into our own aimless souls. And if there's a silver lining to this very dark play, it's the need to dispel those illusions in order to have any chance of living a full life.
Lackluster acting or faulty direction can make you wonder what the big fuss about Albee was ever about. Fortunately, Robert G. Leigh's direction makes this very long play seem as quick as three hours can be. The pace never slackens; the stage is always visually interesting.
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All four actors skillfully manage to stay human while also serving as Albee's surreal creatures of metaphor and artifice. No one talks or acts like this, really, yet everyone (unfortunately) does, and one of the most remarkable aspects of this play is that Albee takes the metaphysical notion of the unimind—we are all one—and shows what a revolting proposition that could be.
Special mention needs to be made of Thom B. Hill's monumental performance as George. Hill is a very large man and a very skilled actor who captures the ineffectual desperation of his character while still towering over the other characters onstage. Sheryl Donchey's Martha is a bit more problematic, seemingly playing to the audience for most of the first act but settling down as the play descends into its bog of cruelty. John DeMita is appropriately duplicitous as Nick, and Mary Boessow's Honey is quite believable and endearing as his frail wife hopelessly out of her element.
Much like the characters in so many of his plays, especially this one, Albee is a tremendously talented writer blessed—and cursed—with hideous gifts and ugly talents. The best thing that can be said about this production is that it displays his entire palette in all its grotesque, brilliant color.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Santa Ana College's Phillips Hall, 1530 W. 17th St., Santa Ana, (714) 564-5661. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. $6-$8.