REVIEW: NC Stage Proves It’s Not Afraid of Hard-Core Drama in Riveting ‘Virginia Woolf’

Sandy Staggs
Carolina Curtain Call

When the boss’s daughter invites you to a nightcap even at 1 a.m. in the morning, pragmatic wisdom dictates that this is one invitation to accept. Likewise, when a precious dramatic gem like Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is mounted locally such as North Carolina Stage Company’s momentous production in Asheville, by all means go.

Photo by Ray Mata of Blue Ridge Pictures

Photo by Ray Mata of Blue Ridge Pictures

Presented in partnership with Immediate Theatre Project, this staging is an enthralling, emotional free-for-all stocked with brazen, meticulously-crafted performances guaranteed to impart chills.

Michael MacCauley and Callan White, who both recently appeared together in the farce “Jeeves Intervenes,” are George and Martha, a middle-aged couple who live on the campus at a small New England college run by Martha’s father and where George, despite marrying the president’s daughter some 23 years ago, is still just an associate professor of history.

They have just come home after one of her father’s weekly faculty soirees and, to George’s chagrin, Martha has invited a handsome young hire from the biology department and his mousy wife for a late night drink.

But Nick and Honey (Lucky Gretzinger and Julia VanderVeen) unwittingly enter a tempestuous fracas of cruel mind games that challenge their notion of truth, marriage and reality, all fueled by incessant quantities of alcohol.

MacCauley and White give some of the finest displays of acting you will see all season as these iconic characters match intellectual wits, humiliate one another and test the bedrock of their relationship that is built on quicksand.

As one of Asheville’s most prized actors, MacCauley revels in this role, vacillating from a seemingly spineless passive-aggressive oddball to a chess grandmaster with his guest as pawns.

And White, who has the sternness of a noir Barbara Stanwyck and the wicked cackle of Phyllis Diller, dominates the proceedings as both seductress and a crass, foul-mouthed spoiled child who can drink anyone under the table.

Gretzinger makes the crescendoing noble transformation from apathetic pompous bystander to a cocky stud (or is he a house boy?) while VanderVeen remains steadfast as the awkward Honey even in her posture with her feet turned inward in a lanky Olive Oyl stance.

Albee has kept his 1962 masterpiece close to his chest with only two Broadway revivals — both in this century — and licensing reserved exclusively for professional theatres. The 88-year-old three-time Pulitzer Prize winner even modified the play, albeit ever so slightly, as recently as 2005.

Photo by Ray Mata of Blue Ridge Pictures

Photo by Ray Mata of Blue Ridge Pictures

Audiences who have never seen “Virginia Woolf” live — or its shocking ending — may be more familiar with the celebrated disturbing 1966 film version with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who was “aged” considerably and wore padding on top of nearly 30 pounds she gained for the part. Martha did snag her a much-deserved Oscar but the gorgeous Liz was never able to shed that extra weight.

Director Hans Meyer, who by the way is engaged to Ms. VanderVeen, is co-founder of Immediate Theatre Project, has generously finessed a cohesive carefully-choreographed exercise in collaboration with his actors that is worthy of Albee’s brilliant prose. In addition, his peculiar, offbeat sound cues (percussion instruments and perhaps a kazoo) whenever any character re-enters the room are a nice touch, particularly the bell that signals the next round of the verbal boxing match.

Willie Repoley, the other co-founder of ITP, designed the spartan living room set littered with caches of books (props by Jessica Tandy Kammerud) and prevents any distractions form the fine performances. And Lauren Fortuna’s snazzy costumes are firm extensions of the characters from Honey’s modest lemony dress and pearls to Martha’s triple-threat of a wardrobe that ranges from a red crushed-velvet party dress to a seductive black bustier top.

Also on the production team are Technical Director Kenneth Horgan, Lighting Designer CJ Barnwell and Catori Swann as Stage Manager assisted by CM Garrison.

Granted, “Virginia Woolf” is not light theatre for the feign of heart. Clocking in at nearly three hours with two intermissions, Albee’s gripping story gives one a queasy sensation and likely holds the record for the most liquor consumed in one play. But the hangover is well worth it.