Writers Theatre at Books on Vernon. By August Strindberg. Adapted by Conor McPherson. With Larry Yando, Shannon Cochran, Philip Earl Johnson. 2hrs 25mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
It’s hardly a groundbreaking observation to note that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seems to owe a debt to Strindberg’s turn-of-the-20th-century portrait of a toxic marriage. But it has to be said nonetheless; not to mention George and Martha when considering Edgar (Larry Yando) and Alice (Shannon Cochran) would be a conspicuous omission.
Like Albee’s couple, Edgar and Alice get to mix up the caustic routines of their unhappy union with the arrival of an “innocent”—in this case, Alice’s cousin Kurt (Philip Earl Johnson), the man who introduced them 25 years earlier. Edgar is a booze-soaked, ineffectual military commandant stationed on an isolated island, where he and Alice, a resentful former actress 15 years his junior, are holed up in a former prison tower, spending their hours resenting each other and the other residents of the garrison. Kurt arrives charged with setting up a quarantine camp, but the husband and wife see in him a new pawn in their bitter ongoing battle.
Henry Wishcamper’s darkly funny Writers Theatre staging marks the American premiere of Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s 2012 adaptation. Yet for all the modern-English colloquialisms, it’s hard to hear McPherson’s distinctively lyrical voice in this three-actor fracas, even in the most lacerating exchanges.
Kevin Depinet’s cramped, gray scenic design uses the tiny theater at the back of Books on Vernon to prime claustrophobic effect, making the audience feel as penned in as Strindberg’s characters. With Keith Parham’s moody lighting and Josh Schmidt’s whistling wind, the designers practically have you feeling the draft.
But the intimacy can work against the production as well. The majestic Cochran and Yando are equally matched combatants, each as precise and mesmerizing as ever, and yet Yando’s characterization can come across as a bit outsized for the tight confines. Johnson only gets to let loose at the play’s climax, spending most of the evening as a sounding board; even still, his Kurt never radiates the malleability he should for Alice and Edgar to peg him as their new plaything.