Edward Albee would appear on anyone's listing of most prominent high drama playwrights of the 20th century. His "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" might be his magnum opus, surely the longest and most visceral of his many fine works.
With "Who's Afraid" now at NC Stage Co. and Asheville Community Theatre doing "The Man Who Came to Dinner," Asheville has two classic shows running in the old format of three acts, each show nearly three hours. But don't let that dissuade you, as both have the panache to capture your interest and keep you coming back from two intermissions for more of same. The only liability with "Who's Afraid," from the Immediate Theatre Project, is that three hours of intense conflict and struggles exhaust even the most stalwart of theatergoers.
The story goes that middle-age Martha is the daughter of a long-time, iconic, probably despotic, president of the nameless New England college where George, her husband of many years, is a history professor. As the action starts, they are expecting a new, young faculty couple to stop by for a night-cap. Thus begins the bickering and squabbling that occupy the next three hours.
Albee is a master wordsmith, and his contemporary vernacular dialogue is outstanding. Although the script is well over half-century old, it feels entirely current and rings true now into the 21st century. There is a lot of bold, bawdy and angry talk in this three-hour melodrama, of sorts — not easy on the ears or the conscience of mature and considerate theatergoers.
But the best theater is supposed to make us squirm — and squirm we do, as Albee maintains this fever pitch of vulgarities for most of those three hours.
All four of the actors are superb, three from the local community and one brought in from New York City, and interestingly, the three with Equity standing are the locals, along with production stage manager Catori Swann. We've got talent in this town.
Callan White takes the role of Martha, the bitter, vicious and vindictive wife who's out to emasculate her hubby. She's done a good job and is completing the process even as we watch. This is painfully fine writing and acting, with perceptive direction by company co-founder Hans Meyer, thrown in for good measure.
George is given by one of the workhorse actors in the local stable, Michael MacCauley, who as the long-suffering historian only occasionally lashes out in return but can also throw a mean batch of words when provoked beyond restraint. McCauley has the stuff, as we've so often seen. His brow-beaten and abused scholar is a tour de force.
Julia VanderVeen gives us Honey, the airhead who also slowly comes around to spill her guts, as do they all before the morning arrives and they are each depleted. Her body-language is spot-on. Watch for the pigeon toes.
The young botanist who is likely the most sane and normal, wholesome and previously undefiled is Nick, a 28-year-old from a protected background who has turned into a well-rounded lad who acquired a master's degree at age 19, got trapped into marriage to the girl of his parent's dreams and is hoping toward tenure in a respected school. Lucky Gretzinger is the import from NYC who surely looks the part and is either supremely typecast or a very capable actor.
Set design by Immediate Theatre co-founder Willie Repoley is curious in that virtually the whole of the back wall is unadorned by art or windows or any decor at all. If that is making a statement, this writer failed to get the message. It was only moderately distracting but could be considered refreshing, as there was nothing to ponder over, except the lack thereof.
Costumes by Lauren Fortuna, another early Immediate Theatre leader, were predictable in their 1950s appropriateness for the faculty couples, save for Martha's seductive, floozy drag as the night draws on. Only missing was the requisite leather patches on the men's tweed jackets.