Review: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” at Shotgun Players

If you’ve ever seen a play that involves upper class WASPs having a verbal sparring match over dinner or drinks, you’ve seen a play inspired by Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The 1962 play blew the roof off of the dramatic form and shocked Broadway audiences with its takedown of the American nuclear family ideal and the relationship between men and women in the 1960s. Along with the Cold War and the Beatles, it sounded the death knell for post-World War II ideals of the American dream. The play is not much more than a piece of its time, but it still is an intense and interesting work, even if it’s not the masterpiece that it was once claimed to be. If you’ve never seen Virginia Woolf, now is the time to go see it, as Shotgun Players’ production is as good as it could possibly be.

For those unfamiliar with the play, the story concerns George and Martha, a couple on the last leg of middle age who invite Nick and Honey, a couple on the last leg of youth, over for drinks after a party related to the college that both George and Nick teach at and Martha’s father is the president of. The couples are already sauced when their get-together begins (at 2 a.m.), but they continue to down drink after drink and the truth of their lives is brought to the forefront and is no longer able to be ignored. What follows is a three-act, three-hour play that features these four people doing not much more than yelling at each other. If it sounds exhausting, it is, but it’s also sharply funny, intellectually invigorating, and acutely intense. At three hours, it’s about an hour longer than it needs to be, but it’s the kind of historically important play that, unlike something like Strange Interlude or one of Albee’s later plays, is actually entertaining.

Shotgun Players’ production of Virginia Woolf is so good that, if I were a commercial producer, I would take the production to New York for a commercial off-Broadway run. Mark Jackson’s subtle and powerful direction allows for every line of truth to have a fresh sting. Nina Ball’s fantastically innovative set features absolutely no clutter (Virginia Woolf takes place in a living room and typically features a naturalistic set that includes all of the furniture one might find in such a room) and allows for the show to feel closer to a cage fight than a well-made play, to exhilarating effect. Heather Basarab’s lighting design is subtle and and perfectly integrated into the stylings of the dialogue.

The cast, however, is what elevates this Woolf into something truly special. Megan Trout’s Honey is amusing without ever losing a sense of humanity. Josh Schell’s Nick could perhaps do well by turning back the intensity slightly, but plays his character well enough that you recognize each and every one of the conflicting impulses within him. David Sinaiko’s George is as bullish and burning as one could hope for, with a strong sense of the character’s attempts to force back his own lost masculinity. It is Beth Wilmurt’s Martha, though, that stands out above the pack in a revelatory and game-changing performance.

Martha, made famous by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1966 film version of the play, is typically played as screeching and vicious,the kind of woman who you might need a good stiff drink to have a conversation with. When Ms. Wilmurt first takes the stage, with her thin frame and almost delicate voice, it’s initially jarring to see such a radical take on the character. However, once the ball gets rolling, you’ll wonder why her take isn’t what’s considered standard. Hers is Martha the human, not Martha the monster, and the play works much better for it due to the empathy that the audience is now free to feel for her. Almost singlehandedly due to Ms. Wilmurt, the play’s expressionist finale works stronger than I ever could have thought possible.

Even if Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? isn’t perfect, it’s an important play that serious theatergoers should all have a chance to check off of their bucket list. Run, don’t walk to see Shotgun Players’ Virginia Woolf? It’s doubtful you will get an opportunity to see such a strong production of the play within the next decade or so, and to be able to do so in the Shotgun Player’s intimate theatre, where you can hear the actors breathe without any amplification, is a rare opportunity.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs in Berkeley through November 20th, when it will play in repertory with the company’s other 4 productions through January 20th. Tickets and information available here.

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