At Ford’s, George and Martha Can Still Shock

It’s the early 1960s and we’re in the two-story home of George and Martha. He’s an underachieving, acerbic professor of history, she’s the daughter of the university president. The couple — in a state of standing hostility after being married for more than 20 years — are awaiting guests in the aftermath of a faculty party: Nick, an ambitious young biology professor, and his overheated, nervous wife Honey.

What ensues is a kind of gamesmanship, a battle among and between couples, young and older. There’s life and sexual rivalry, perhaps more secrets than any play should carry, a display of both razor-edged wit and cruelty.

We are in the world of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” In 1962, the play put the young playwright Edward Albee on the road to modern American master status, alongside Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and (later) August Wilson. “Woolf” — the title is a literary pun on the children’s ditty — deserves its classic status and repeated restagings for any number of reasons, but on the surface it also produces a question.

Why should we care — these days, now, if not then — about four people that those unfamiliar with the competitive, stress-filled and bookish atmosphere of academic life might not find interesting, let alone fascinating? In some ways, this production is nudged along occasionally by jazz notes once savored by students wearing thin ties and an air of intellectual insouciance.

The play should be stuck in time, whether the year is 1962 or 1966 (when the memorable Mike Nichols-directed film starring Liz and Dick as Martha and George was released) or in more recent incarnations seen here, starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin at the Kennedy Center and Amy Morton and Tracy Letts in a Steppenwolf Theatre production at Arena Stage.

Yet this Ford’s Theatre production in the year of our Lord 2017 — directed deftly, with sharp eyes, humor and great, generous focus by Aaron Posner — leaps out of its bounds of time snarling and swinging, pulling no punches and pummeling the audience, which on opening night reacted with shock, and sometimes audible in-takings of breath.

Much of this has to do with the fact that “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is one of the great American plays that makes actors salivate, and maybe tremble a little, too. It should be mentioned that this is a great play for all four actors. With each incarnation, something is added to the “Woolf” cannon — and it is a historic sort of play in that sense — which makes it feel fresh and new and powerful enough to inflict pity and acts of recognition.

In the cast at Ford’s, there’s great courage and great credit, enough to go around in all four corners. This version, running through Feb. 19, reminds us once again of the D.C. theater community’s star power. Holly Twyford, who plays Martha, is one of those actors whose voice is instantly recognizable if you’ve seen her a few times — richly raspy and distinct, a voice that’s a tool Twyford has put to good use in a remarkable Washington parade of roles from Juliet to contemporary, strong women. It’s a voice that can, at turns, make you laugh, cringe and weep, all responses necessary in dealing with her riotous Martha.

All of the characters in one way or another, at one point or another, can make your hair stand on end. When Gregory Linington leaps from quiet snarkiness to profoundly bitter aggression against Martha or duels with the chest-out confidence of Danny Gavigan as Nick, it’s a little like discovering that your pet snake is a rattler. Gavigan’s potential and eagerness for physical action is barely concealed in his suit while Maggie Wilder (she had a major sexy-funny role in Woolly Mammoth’s wildly insane production of “An Octaroon”) is like some pretty, horrible accident waiting to happen.

This play happens to about four people stumbling around at the hour of the dark night of our souls, all right, but it’s full of rage, fear, sex, ambition, competition, the stink of potential murder and failure all at once and the sad music of missed chances, of wisps of understanding applied too late when everyone has finally collapsed. In short, it’s full of life, all of life.

George and Martha have done this before: Martha’s sexual hunting, her frustration and rage, the talk about their child, the games with the bitter-bile names of “Hump the Hostess,” “Get the Guests” and the devastating “Bringing Up Baby.” They seem to live on booze and bitters, but they are also — at odd moments — both funny and poetic. They lead and have led not typical lives; we don’t respond so much to the setting as to the contents of their emotional lives, from which we are not so much separated. The bile is part punch, part counterpunch, as when Martha says, “I swear, if you existed, I’d divorce you,” or George says, “Martha is 108 … years old. She weighs somewhat more than that.”

It’s not Shaw or Coward, it’s not even Mamet. It’s Albee.

In our time, when Martha — responding to their song “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — says, “I am,” we might even concur.


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