Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By Edward Albee. Dir. Pam MacKinnon. With Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Madison Dirks, Carrie Coon. Running time: 3hrs; two intermissions.
In a 1963 essay for Vogue magazine, Walter Kerr described repeatedly passing by the Billy Rose Theatre “at the very moment when the customers for Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? were having their second-act intermission cigarette.” Kerr, then the theater critic for the New York Herald Tribune, documented the chatter: “‘You were the one who wanted to come!’ and ‘Since when did married people talk to each other like that?’ were the commonest among the louder expostulations.… They nearly behaved like the play in order to deny the play,” he wrote. “One thing about them. They all went back in.”
Albee’s portrait of warring spouses George and Martha and the younger couple they draw into their web over a long, drunken night no longer carries the same shock value it had when it marked the playwright’s Broadway debut in 1962. The profanity, sexual themes and psychological brutality that scandalized Kerr’s sidewalk subjects, as well as many critics and the Pulitzer committee, have been absorbed into the foundation of American drama.
But if Woolf no longer shocks, it can still find ways to surprise, as Albee-approved director MacKinnon’s searing revival proves. Greatest among these may be the interpretation of the power dynamic between George, the ineffectual associate professor of history at a small New England college, and Martha, the brazen, alcoholic daughter of the school’s president. Letts’s and Morton’s singular, canny performances flip the familiar Woolf that’s fixed in our minds.
While it’s Martha who tells George in the second act that their tenuous, acerbic arrangement has finally “snapped,” Letts, wearing his cardigan and Richard Burton glasses like battle armor, suggests it’s George who’s calling the shots on this fraught night. George may yield to Martha’s verbal abuse early on, but Letts’s precise, contained delivery—even his posture, sinking back into chairs with his hands pinned beneath his thighs as if to restrain them—says George’s ineffectuality is a facade.
If Letts imbues George with a cerebral power boost, Morton brings Martha down from the operatic level at which she’s sometimes played, finding an equal, human footing with her spouse. Morton can holler with aplomb, as August: Osage County’s audiences know. But her best moments are quieter—here in Albee’s sharp throwaway lines or the unmannered sincerity of the moment, after George’s game of “Get the Guests,” that she registers he’s launched an endgame.The guests, too, are terrific. As Nick, the ambitious young biology professor, Dirks gradually and skillfully reveals his character’s callow self-interest, while Coon brings great humor and a kind of dippy dignity to his mousy wife, Honey.
By playing up the spiky, unsettling comedy of the first two acts, MacKinnon makes the later, darker corners all the more harrowing. But the tonal shift isn’t jarring; MacKinnon hugs the curves in a way one suspects wouldn’t be possible without the firm rapport between Morton and Letts. Even as George and Martha cut each other to the marrow, their portrayers find the love among the ruins.