There are films whose brilliance is apparent as soon as the storytelling begins. Examples of such wonders range from Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, and The Great Dictator, to Schindler’s List, Memento, and Passion of the Christ.
In the world of literature, the same rule applies. There are books that as you read them, demand you to acknowledge them as classics. Think of books like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Grapes of Wrath, The Catcher in the Rye, The Outsiders, and Bright Lights Big City. The words leap off the page and burrow their way into your mind.
In theatre there are scripts so ingenious and daunting that producing them on stage is not often done. These scripts are so intricate and challenging, that living up to the mastery of words is not guaranteed. In fact, the chance of failure looms large.
AN EPIC PLAY
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is an epic play that you don’t see many local theater companies take on the challenge of producing. In terms of content, the text demands a runtime in excess of three hours. The sheer amount of memorization required of the four actors in the play is Herculean. It’s almost akin to having to commit the dictionary to memory.
In terms of bringing the characters of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to life, not many actors have the talent to do them justice. Just as the language of the play is intricate, the characters are equally complex. The subtle nuances needed to translate the emotions on the page into a form that will take the audience on a spectacular journey are not easy. Nor, are they few. Rather, these characters are some of the most difficult ones to do justice to in the history of American theater.
Written by Edward Albee, the play opened on Broadway in 1962. Directed by Alan Schneider, the production won the Tony Award for Best Play. Uta Hagen won the Tony for Best Actress for her role as Martha. Arthur Hill won the Tony for Best Actor for originating the role of George. Melinda Dillon made her Broadway debut in the show as Honey and was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Tony. Although not nominated for a Tony, George Gizzard received rave reviews as Nick.
The story focuses on one night in the lives of George and Martha, a middle-aged couple. He’s an associate professor of history at a reputable college. She’s the daughter of the president of the college. Martha doesn’t hide her disappointment that her husband George never lived up to her expectations that he would show the initiative to one day take over her father’s position.
George and Martha are damaged people. It could be argued that we are all damaged in some way. But George and Martha have an unhealthy penchant for insulting each other at every opportunity. Yet in contrast, at other times they can still display true affection for one another. It is a game they play. A game that can be shockingly difficult to witness.
Following a faculty party, George and Martha play host to a new addition to the biology department and his engaging young wife. As drinking goes from casual to obsessive, soon Nick and Honey are absorbed into the twisted world of George and Martha and the psychological games they play.
Jamie Ewing is a peer in the acting community I have the utmost respect for. He explores all the subtle nuances of a character. He takes you on a journey. And that’s exactly what he does in the Elsinore Players’ production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf running Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through September 25.
Ewing’s George is not a particularly likable fellow. He is an insulting and antagonistic curmudgeon, who gets a rather disturbing joy out of manipulating people. Yet at times, he is not completely distasteful. He is complex. It is a masterful performance by one of the area’s best.
As Martha, Lori Rohr is a captivating trainwreck. At times you might be disgusted by her. At other times you may feel sorry for her. Like George, there’s little chance you’ll ever like Martha. Rohr’s physicality of the role is incredibly impressive and there is no emotion that she does not explore over the course of the evening. It is a performance to be proud of.
This performance piece was my first exposure to the other two gifted actors charged with entertaining the audience for three hours: Brian Fleming and Audrey Gniech. They did not disappoint.
As Nick, Fleming shows us a young teaching professor early in his career who knows the importance of maintaining a respectable image. As drinks flow and emotions are toyed with, Nick’s poster boy image becomes undone. He and his wife Honey become unwitting victims in a sick and twisted game. They leave the evening changed.
Gniech is a very talented young actress. Her character does not handle her liquor well. It would be easy to make Honey’s intoxication a constant point of humor, but Gniech doesn’t take the easy road. Under the skilled direction of Thomas Neumann, Gniech’s Honey is as equally damaged as the other three souls on display – but with the added challenge of being both physically and emotionally fragile.
I’ve watched Neumann grow as a director over the last few years. He has been brave enough to tackle such projects as Hamlet and A Doll’s House Part 2. In both cases, the results have been impressive. He continues to grow and explore, and I applaud his work. Thomas Neumann’s direction of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a true feather in his cap.
FLASHES OF HUMOR
It is important to note that you should not let the three-hour run time concern you. You will be highly entertained the entire time. The night truly flies by. It’s also important to know that despite the toxic personalities and moments of anger, there are also some really great comedic moments.
Thanks to the superb, yet disturbing writing of Ablee, the masterful direction of Neumann, and the breathtaking performances of Ewing, Rohr, Fleming, and Gniech there is so much going on in the play that you could go see every remaining performance and experience something new each time.
There are very few productions that I would recommend people consider going to multiple times. Elsinore Players Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is one of them.
Performances take place in the basement of the First United Methodist Church, 216 E. Highland Avenue, Elgin, IL. For tickets visit: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/whos-afraid-of-virginia-woolf-tickets-344912020137. Walk ins are also welcome.
As that there are no concessions, I would suggest bringing a bottled water or two.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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