I’ve seen a lot of Albee’s plays; recently I was deeply moved by his A Lady from Dubuque in which he so perfectly encapsulates the world that revolves around a ‘cancer victim,’ as well as the victim herself. But nothing prepared me for the latest presentation of Virginia Woolf presented by The Steppenwolf Theatre Co. that recently opened on Broadway. What I’m talking about and what is so stunning about this production is the attitude of George toward Martha, and George’s reasons for his seemingly vicious attack on and betrayal of her at the end of the play. In my opinion, George not only understands Martha’s pain, nymphomania, and inability to hold her drink – as opposed to him – but his love is strong enough to include an awareness that his wife’s imbalance comes from a source so deep and so connected to her past that she has no hope of survival unless desperate measures are taken.
Both the acting and the directing suggest that this is a correct interpretation of this latest revival; Martha is not depicted as a tough, harridan type, as in previous Broadway incarnations of the play, but instead as a woman who is trying to force her husband to take her in hand because she is incapable of doing it for herself. And take her in hand he does, by forcing her at the end to face the ‘fiction’ in their lives, so, possibly they can uncover what their ‘truth’ might be. They do love each other, that much is clear.
In this interpretation, George, beautifully played by Traci Letts gains our sympathy in spite of his apparent cruelty toward his wife, because we sense the compassion beneath his mordant wit. The younger couple - a ‘driven’ husband and his wife, a ‘mouse of manipulation’ - come into focus as ‘a drawing’ of the older couple who will later become ‘the painting’ that is George and Martha. And I feel in Letts deeply intelligent performance of George, that Albee depicts not a weak, failed ‘man of letters,’ but one who actually cares for his wife at the expense of an all-out, go-ahead thrust toward a career. In his treatment of the younger professor, one can see that, yes, George is jealous and angry, but the driving force is a set of warnings, dished out with large doses of hilarious cruelty.
Ultimately, the villains are neither George nor Martha, but a society that cripples the will of intelligent women, who are hopelessly trapped in views of the wife/mother model. And when they can’t bear the pain of feeling that they have failed in this ‘crucial area of womanhood,’ - and Martha is already drowning herself in misery, as well as alcohol, before the play begins - they will damage themselves and everyone around them in an attempt to escape their rage and depression.
Take the play’s namesake, Virginia Woolf, for example; a decent husband and a successful career weren’t enough to stave off a deadly depression. There are several theories about her suicide, but she wrote incessantly about the difficulties of women, and one can safely assume that she would have stood a better chance of survival had she not been confined in a man’s world and had she been allowed to express her love of women more openly.
In order to play characters of this complexity, actors must be very sure of their technique and know that the meaning of what is written on the page may demand precise and informed scrutiny. Take, for example, the brilliantly constructed British import, Harper Regan, which unfortunately is closing soon. Buy a copy, it’s worth reading. The playwright wrote the prizewinning Bluebird, also produced by the adventurous Atlantic Theatre Company. I would have given Harper Regan a prize too, not only for its ingenious construction but because the female protagonist - the play bears her name - translates terror into actions of all sorts. She’s not noble, but she’s imaginative and consistently courageous.
This is the kind of contemporary play that really turns me on. I have a very personal reason for saying this. Harper is the kind of woman I would like to be if I had been born thirty years later. My generation shifted out of the girdles and Maidenform bras of the ‘fifties’ into the bra-burning, ‘let-it-all-hang-out’ liberalism of the ‘sixties.’ But most of us had no idea how to negotiate this ‘freedom’ we preached. We got family or husband to rescue us when we couldn’t navigate the train wreck of child care vs. career and never got either one quite right. I’m not saying that thirty years later – or even today – these problems have been solved, but it became easier to take risks. Society was much less of a problem – not everywhere, of course – but there were places to go where women could break out of whatever mold held them prisoner, particularly the one in some unconscious part of their own brain. Harper is one such woman!
During the early part of the play, she commits herself to a series of actions, some of them bizarre and highly questionable. But the play is so intricately fashioned that only near the end, do we discover Harper’s biggest challenge. It’s like Chinese boxes, except the smallest gives us a new viewpoint that erases all our perfectly logical assumptions of Harper up to that point. We see that everything she does relates to one Big Question. She always maintains her ‘human’ if not her ‘practical’ responsibilities. Skating on the thinnest ice, she skips around looking for whatever ‘truth’ exists in her situation. Entangling herself, trying out crazy stuff, but then finding out it isn’t what she needs, she moves on. So when she ultimately returns to her family, she is not going back into the fold.
There are no answers in this play; but Harper Regan is able to see that family is the most important ‘undiscovered country’ that life can offer. Unlike so many husbands of yore, she returns not out of guilt, but because she genuinely finds family the one challenge she must face in life – in which love plays only a part. Because the darkness is so palpable in this play, the rays of light shine true and bright.
I don’t think New York is quite ready for plays like Harper Regan – although it did extend its run slightly. It was well-regarded by the Times, but panned by the New Yorker in an outrageously dismissive review. It’s time will come; Cock is another play that’s a little ahead of New York’s timetable. It deals with gay issues in a completely new way. Ah, those Brits! Well, they’ve been around a lot longer than we Americans… They have a right to their little jump on us.
Of course, Albee isn’t contemporary or British – so much for theories and generalizations.