Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is not about Virginia Woolf. There are no grand allusions to influential modernist literature or tributes to Woolf’s novels. Woolf herself is essentially meaningless in the context of this play, but that is part of its genius. Oregon Contemporary Theatre’s production of Edward Albee’s Tony Award winning drama stretches the boundaries of sanity and stability as it explores questions far more pressing than the one posed by the title. Though Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was long and heart-wrenching, it presented a moving story with honesty, intelligence, and dark humor.
This play is an American classic, produced countless times on stage and perhaps most famously, on screen in 1966. The script is undoubtedly brilliant. Albee’s characters are simultaneously abhorrent and sympathetic. The play consistently builds in intensity and scope over three long acts, and raises dark questions about truth, illusion, and fear that are accented with bursts of sharp humor.
Credit must also be given to Oregon Contemporary Theatre’s production. Even the most well written play has the potential to fail, but that was hardly the case with this show. The set, a small intimate studio theatre, was perfectly suited to this play. It felt as if the audience was sitting in the living room with the characters, and the unfolding action.
More importantly, the cast was stellar. Each member of the four-person ensemble brought idiosyncratic energy to the stage. Lyn Burg was mesmerizing as the loud, vulgar Martha. Her onstage presence was at times abrasive and uncomfortable, but intentionally so. As the play progressed, her character developed unprecedented depth.
Dan Pegoda was equally impressive as Martha’s husband, history professor George. Pegoda’s musical voice delivered George’s wordy, intelligent lines with ease, and his character’s tense aggression was the perfect complement to Burg’s larger-than-life Martha. The entire play revolved around their flawed, almost sadistic relationship, and even at its most insane, the connection between George and Martha felt painfully honest.
At times, the characters’ deep discourse fell into academic incoherence, and at just over three hours, fully absorbing this play took stamina. By the end, however, it was worth it. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a tense, alcohol-soaked exploration of failed relationships and human flaws. The characters are as easy to hate as they are to love, and by the end of the exhausting action, it’s still possible to sympathize with each of their unique struggles. This cast’s performance brought Albee’s masterpiece to life.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is no walk in the park. The story is dark and twisted, the characters flawed and sad. Taken as a whole, however, Oregon Contemporary Theatre’s production is thought-provoking, profoundly artistic, and a play worth experiencing.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs Thurs-Sat nights through March 14 at 7:30 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. March 1 and 8. For more information, visit the Oregon Contemporary Theatre website.