Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

"Virginia Woolf" at Karamu is a powerful production

Cleveland Press February 20, 1971

Edward Albee's 1962 play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" has been revived at Karamu's Arena Theater. The language that shocked theater goers then is common place now. Therefore what power the play has can be observed in a new light, and the fact remains that the work is as lacerating as ever.

Standing out in stark relief is the central battle between George, the history professor who is unsuccessful, and Martha, his discontented, nagging wife.

"Virginia Woolf" is a play about a relationship that has continued on the basis of mutual hatreds and mutual weaknesses as well as mutual needs. It is a drama within a drama, the two characters pretending, playing games by their own peculiar rules -- and their audience, a new faculty member and his wife.

The play has been staged in the Arena Theater and the physical intimacy brings the audience uncomfortably close -- almost to the point of being participants -- to the battle ground.

The setting is the living room of the older couple's home in a New England college town. The occasion is a small drinking party which has followed a larger drinking party. It is a curiously modern, American phenomenon, this sitting around with bottles for company and alcohol for a catalyst. The play could exist in no other time or place.

The material of the play is so meaty, so imaginative and so varied that it allows room for an inventive director to flex his muscles. "Virginia Woolf" can exist as a word play, almost an intellectual exercise. It can be a black comedy. Still waiting someplace may be an interpretation that turns it into a melodrama.

Director Reuben Silver's approach has been to make it a physical, earthy, punishing presentation without ignoring the cruelty of the dialog but rather augmenting it.

Gone is the submerged, slightly cool politeness. No one is polite in this production, or if they are, it is just barely.

Dorothy Silver, the director's wife and a frequent director at Karamu, makes one of her rare acting appearances in this presentation. Here is a gutsy Martha, a mercurial woman who can screech raucously one minute and become softly pathetic the next.

There is a mean bite to her sarcasm, then a quick shift into an alcoholic laugh. And then in the third act there is something I hadn't noticed before in the play - the shrew becoming for a moment sympathetic as she describes her husband, without sarcasm, as a man " . . who is good to me and whom I revile." For bravura performances there is nothing like it around.

Tedd Burr as George is a portrait of the embittered intellectual, a man alternately meek and mean. Figuratively castrated, pushed to the wall, he can come back with a maliciousness that is cool and cunning.

The other two characters, not so fully drawn by the playwright, still manage to emerge in the hands of Earl Billings and Barbara Billings, the latter alternating in the role with Robin M. Trussell.

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is not a pleasant play, never will be. It is powerful however, and Karamu's production, complete with hair pulling, face slapping and spitting, is physically overpowering. I don't think I can take another presentation of the play for a couple of seasons.

And with all due respect to Reuben Silver, I think he's a beast to put his wife through all that every night.