Free Rain’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? demonstrates why Edward Albee’s play is regarded as an American classic. As Director Cate Clelland points out in her director’s notes, the play, set in 1965 in a New England college town, reveals just how fragile the veneer of polite society is and exploded the myth of the ‘American dream’, shocking critics at the time. Significantly, both couples depicted in the play do not have children, a point that perhaps serves to emphasise that all four characters are in many ways not adults themselves.

In the play, middle aged couple George and Martha invite a new professor and his wife to their house after a party. Martha is the daughter of the president of the college where George is an associate history professor. Nick is a biology professor (who Martha thinks teaches math), and Honey is his mousy, brandy-abusing wife. Once at home, Martha and George continue drinking and engage in relentless, scathing verbal and sometimes physical abuse in front of Nick and Honey. The younger couple are simultaneously fascinated and embarrassed as they are drawn into this tempestuous relationship and their own marriage is put under the microscope.

The play relies almost entirely on the believability of the actors, and the fine ensemble cast delivers. Andrea Close is pitch-perfect as Martha, both vulgar and vitriolic, but allowing us to see her vulnerability and self-doubt underneath her brashness in a performance that deserves a CAT award nomination. Michael Sparks is convincing as her failed academic husband, giving George an effeminate air and showing his enjoyment in the petty power he wields throughout the evening, as well as the buried tenderness he harbours for his unfaithful wife. The younger actors are also well cast, with Hannah McCann suitably vapid and manipulative as Honey, and Ben Williams a believable all-American stud, though at times he seemed hesitant in Nick’s more passionate speeches. A few opening night nerves were apparent in the early stages of the play, but the actors soon settled into an appropriate pace, maintaining the necessary high tension throughout. The production retained the American accents that are so integral to the impact of the dialogue, but unfortuantely despite the assistance of Jess Chambers as accent advisor, sliding in and out of the accent was a problem throughout the night, particularly for the male actors.

The play maintains a nice balance between absurdism and horrifying reality as it presents two marriages that are tenuous in very different ways. The play is emotionally draining to watch, and despite the conditionally positive note the play ends on, it portrays a very bleak picture of humanity, as the four characters engage in destructive games such as ‘hump the hostess’ and ‘bringing up baby’.

The staging and technical decisions were not always well chosen, with Owen Horton’s choice to use lighting to mirror the dramatic action when Martha begins talking about their son in the final act only serving to distract from the very fine acting. Clelland’s decision to stage the play in the round in order to encourage a sense of intimacy is successful, however sightlines were not considered as well as they should have been, and in a number of pivotal scenes actors had their back to me, leaving audience members on my side of the studio to only imagine the actor’s facial expressions.

The three-act play has a long running time of three hours and fifteen minutes (including two intervals), and in the final act, some audience members were perceptibly shifting in their seats and eyeing their watches. This is a pity, as the final moments of the play, in particular Martha and George’s plaintive realisation that they cannot bear to exist outside of the illusory life they have created, are very moving. Despite the lengthiness of the production, this is a classic that has lost none of its potency as the audience watches horrified as these four people’s lives are changed irrevocably in one alcohol fuelled evening.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will be playing in the Courtyard Studio of the Canberra Theatre until November 14.

Free-Rain Theatre Company presents
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
by Edward Albee

Venue: The Courtyard Studio
Dates: 29 October - 14 November 2010

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