Not just anyone can put on the late Edward Albee’s iconic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, the brutal and at times brutally funny story of a bitter, alcoholic couple that humiliates and manipulates each other and two houseguests through three acts.
The Albee estate demanded that B Street Theatre submit its production plans for the drama before the Sacramento theater company could earn a green light to proceed. Among other things, B Street had to share its set design, costume design and names and head shots of the four actors.
The concern is understandable. Albee’s play is one of the crown jewels of modern American theater. It won five Tony awards in 1963, including best play, and since then has been revived four times on Broadway. The film adaptation, released in 1966 and starring then real-life tempestuous couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, collected five Oscars, including best actress for Taylor.
The estate eventually signed off, and for that, Sacramento theatergoers have reason to rejoice. Under Dave Pierini’s artful direction, B Street’s production is at times hurtful, haunting and hilarious, but always riveting. The dialogue is so visceral, the stage movement so captivating, that this production feels like the fastest three hours you could spend in a darkened theater with strangers.
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The psychological fallout of a ruinous marriage is a perennial theme in popular entertainment (think “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” or more recently, “Ice Storm,” “American Beauty,” “Revolutionary Road,” etc.). But what separates “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” from the pack is Albee’s ferocious script and unforgiving pace.
B Street veterans Kurt Johnson and Elisabeth Nunziato deliver incendiary performances as George and Martha, respectively, the aging New England couple who relish in their roles as slow poison to each other. These two believe that if you don’t have anything nice to say, well, don’t say it, scream it. George and Martha’s relationship isn’t just broken. It’s been obliterated by years of cruel mind games and vicious put-downs, expressions of chronic disappointment and resentment.
George, an associate professor of history at a small college, has never become the man, or even the full professor, that Martha – the daughter of the college president – has wanted him to be. And she reminds him of his shortcomings early and often. “You make me puke!” she taunts him in the play’s opening minutes. “I swear,” she says later, “if you existed, I would divorce you.”
But they’ve been married for so many years, she’s strayed from him so many times and they’ve inflicted so much pain on each other, why divorce now? George and Martha hate to love each other, it seems, and so they love to hate each other.
When George and Martha tire of spousal torture, they turn on their houseguests, whom they have invited over for a nightcap following a faculty party. Jason Kuykendall (Nick) and Dana Brooke (Honey) both convey convincing Midwestern earnestness in their roles as a young biology professor and his wide-eyed wife. But while Brooke shines playing a lightweight drinker who over-imbibes, Kuykendall’s acting is more apparent, his emotional output less seamless.
Set designer Samantha Reno must have attended her share of those boring faculty parties that George complains about. Reno has littered George and Martha’s living room, where all the on-stage action takes place, with books and exam papers piled, dumped, shelved and spread everywhere. But even in all this biblio-clutter, Reno has reserved a prominent and accessible spot for the all-important bar cart, stocked with ice buckets, glasses, two bottles of Jim Beam bourbon and his friends gin and brandy.
Set in the early 1960s, the play and its unflinching examination of curdled love revels in the period but never feels dated. One plot thread running throughout is the anticipated arrival of George and Martha’s son, who is coming home to celebrate his 21st birthday. The boy represents a glimmer of hope, a last remaining sinew of healthy connective tissue between George and Martha.
Will he show? Can he bring a modicum of peace to the couple? Without him, George and Martha share little more than an indefatigable commitment to fueling a fire that already is burning out of control.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
What: Edward Albee’s Tony-award-winning play explores the breakdown of the marriage of middle-aged couple Martha and George. Directed by Dave Pierini.
Where: B Street Theatre, Main Stage, 2711 B St., Sacramento
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 7 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 5 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays; through Oct. 29
Cost: $27-$39, $9 student rush
Information: 916-443-5300 or www.bstreettheatre.org
Running time: Approximately three hours, including two intermissions