Get the Guests: Martha (Andrea Van Dyke) toys with young Nick (Mark Schwetz) in Pegasus Theater's 'Woolf.'
By David Templeton
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Those five words have a way of eliciting strong responses, even from those who've never seen Edward Albee's groundbreaking play. Due partly to the semisuccessful movie version featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, many have picked up the idea that the play is nothing but a humorless slog, as a quartet of angry, foul-mouthed, drunken people say and do despicable things to one another for three very long hours, making numerous references to literature and popular culture along the way.
This is only partly true.
As written by Albee, the play actually contains a great deal of humor, along with some astonishingly insightful writing. George and Martha, the married couple whose living room is the setting of the play, do indeed say terrible things to one another; they are cruel and relentless and coarse to a wallpaper-peeling degree. But what Albee has created is not a hate story, but the opposite. George and Martha are an educated, intelligent couple whose love, based largely on mutual respect and a deep delight in one another's intelligence and wit, has become frayed after too many years fighting to live up to society's neat and tidy nuclear-family standards.
"I believe this play is one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, if not the greatest," says Michael Tabib, cofounder of Pegasus Theater Company in Monte Rio, who is returning after a three-year hiatus to direct Pegasus' upcoming production of Woolf, opening Feb. 17, with an appropriately alcohol-fueled fundraising gala. "This play is very much a love story," he says. "These are very intelligent people, the folks in this play, and they know the weapons to use in any marital battle. But one thing that a lot of people forget--and it's clear in any good production of the play--is that they also enjoy each other's prowess a lot, and are quite often amused by the terrible things they say to one another. A good production never loses sight of the fact that, when Martha comes up with something really nasty to say to George, George is impressed. And that goes for Martha."
Albee's play takes place over the course of one evening as history professor George and his wife Martha "entertain" a young couple they meet at a party, employing a series of games with titles like Humiliate the Hosts, Get the Guests and Bringing Up Baby. The infamous language was so raw for censorship-plagued 1962 that when the play was selected for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the Pulitzer board refused to grant the award, electing instead to give no prize to a play that year. Today, Woolf is recognized as having been a major event in the history of theater, art and literature. Despite the "shocking and unacceptable" language, the show ran for over two years on Broadway, won five Tony Awards including Best Play, and ushered in an era of bolder, more honest playwriting.
"The writing in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is poetic," says Tabib, "it's real, it's beautiful, it's challenging--and it's funny. People forget how funny this play is. It's really hilarious."
Pegasus Theater's 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' runs Thursday-Sunday, Feb. 17-March 10. Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm; Sunday at 2pm. Pegasus Hall, Monte Rio, 20347 Hwy. 116. $12-$15; Feb. 17 opening-night Champagne gala, $35; pay what you will, Feb. 22. 707.522.9043.
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