Fifty years after its debut, Edward Albee’s play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is just as raw, powerful, intense and relevant as ever.
The play, running at the Theatre Institute at Sage in Troy through Nov. 11, debuted in October 1962 on Broadway. It caused quite a stir then because of the frank way it deals with sexuality and adult themes. The play won the 1963 Tony for Best Play and was selected for the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, only to have the award’s advisory board veto the award because of the controversial use of profanity and sexual themes.
Director David Baecker of Troy was looking for a work for a cast of both professionals and students, and this one kept coming up as a possibility. He had a difficult time getting the rights to stage it because of the 50th anniversary, but he managed to do it.
“I think blended casts are a lot of fun,” Baecker said. “The biggest challenge of a blended cast is not that you have to treat the professionals different than the students, but the professionals, I have to ask a lot less of them,” he said.
Theatre Institute teacher and artist-in-residece David Bunce of South Colonie plays George, a college history professor, and institute’s artist-in-residence Leigh Strimbeck of Valatie plays his wife, Martha.
The action takes place in Martha and George’s home in a small college town, after a party given by the university president, Martha’s father. Martha invites a young biology professor, Nick (played by Sage sophomore Matt McFadden of Troy) and his wife, Honey (Lexie Phillips, a Sage senior from Barnstead, N.H.). The play’s title — English author Virginia Woolf’s name subbed into the Disney song “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?” — is a parody a party guest made up, and the characters bring it up throughout the play.
Back at their home and fueled by more alcohol, George and Martha begin relentless bouts of verbal and sometimes physical sparring with each other, often drawing in the young couple who remain there, despite the verbal abuse.
The students enjoy working with seasoned professionals. “I’ve never worked this closely with professional actors before,” McFadden said. “They come to rehearsal, and they have all these ideas about their characters. Seeing all the time and effort they’ve put into it forces me to step my game up.”
Phillips said she feels challenged at each rehearsal to try to work at the level of the professionals. One of the most challenging aspects of the role for her is putting herself into the mind-set of a woman from the 1960s, where a woman’s status was often tied to her husband’s. Growing up in the 21st century where that is no longer the case, made this difficult for Phillips to connect with her character.
For their part, Bunce and Stimbeck said they enjoy working with the students. Strimbeck had directed both last year in the original production “Hell and High Water,” written by a playwright from the Berkshires.
Onstage, it’s just actor to actor, said Bunce, but added that he finds opportunities during rehearsals to teach the students how professionals approach certain situations and to help them make discoveries about their characters.
The play is well-known for its epic length — three acts in three hours. “If I had thought about it, I should have been training like an athlete for this,” Bunce said.
Strimbeck, who’s played Martha before, knew that it would take a lot to do it. “One of my theories about being an actor is that you should always be training for your next part — don’t wait until you’re cast,” she said. This involves being in good physical shape. “A lot of being a good actor is having stamina and being ready for these intense periods of work.”
Intellectually, the play is a challenge, too, because of all of the memorization required of the actors, most of whom are on stage for a good part of the production. “It’s so tightly written,” Baecker said. “If one drops a line, it throws off the entire scene,” he said.
Baecker also has to work at keeping it visually interesting, because it does all take place in one room. The characters move around, climb up on furniture and, in one particularly memorable scene, George really goes after Martha physically.
Besides physical stamina, there is emotional stamina as well, as the characters go at each other over and over throughout the play. “Emotionally, it’s very complex and deep and dark, so it just takes a lot out of you in every possible way,” Strimbeck said.
Amid the deep and dark, though, there is humor. “Everyone thinks it’s such a heavy play, but there is so much lightness and levity in it,” Baecker said.
Strimbeck sees the same, and hopes audiences will, too. “It’s twisted humor, but there’s humor in it,” she said.
She hopes audiences will see the humanity in the play, too. There’s a failed marriage, unrealized expectations, disappointment and longing.
There’s something else, too. “This play is about 80 million different things, but I’ve always come back to it has to be a love story to justify all the pain and all the fighting,” Baecker said. “I think that people will enjoy grabbing onto the arms of the seat and hunkering down with this big old thing that’s going to happen in front of them,” he said.