The French expression “folie a deux” is apt in describing the Colonial Little Theatre’s production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The phrase translates as a delusional idea shared by two closely connected people. Like a long-married couple? Sure. In this case, George and Martha, American colonists of a college campus in the 1960s, where George (Frank Pickus) teaches history and Martha (Christine Vermilyea), the college president’s daughter, drinks.
If you’re near Johnstown, get to the hair-raising production of this Edward Albee standard, now 50 years old, but no musty curio. Director John Birchler and a quartet of strong actors have brought it to life.
‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’
WHERE: Colonial Little Theatre, One Colonial Court, Johnstown
WHEN: through Mar. 17
HOW MUCH: $12
MORE INFO: 762-4325
To say what these delusional ideas are would be to spoil the play, but let’s just say that George and Martha love playing mind games with each other. Not so their guests, the unsuspecting Nick (Knathan MacKenzie-Roy) and his wife, Honey (Anna Guntner), new arrivals on campus, dragged home at 2 a.m. by the flirtatious Martha after one of her father’s faculty parties.
Over three acts — “Fun and Games,” “Walpurgisnacht (Witches’ Sabbath)” and “The Exorcism” — George and Martha perform the drama of their small-town academic lives, lives full of disappointment, compromise, irony, jealousy and love. There’s a moment early on when Nick and Honey might leave, so appalled these 20-somethings are by the reckless candor of their elders, but they miss their opportunity to go — it’s impossible not to watch a car wreck.
Besides, biology prof Nick thinks hanging around might be useful professionally. Soon everybody (except George?) is intoxicated, and Nick and Honey’s complicated relationship is headed for a car wreck of its own.
The material is strong stuff, whether it’s the aggressive banter between Nick and George in Act II, or Martha’s fiery monologues, which enable us to see a bright and articulate woman trapped in the gender roles of her time. Albee’s insights and bitter humor keep us engaged throughout.
So does the production. Birchler’s set — outfitted by Don Wheeler and Maryanne Abad — is the appropriate picture of shabby gentility, with an overstocked bar, piles of books, mismatched chairs here and there, a comfy couch (the worse for wear) evoking the home of an intellectual and a bored housekeeper. The lighting is a bit sketchy, leaving the audience wishing for more use of the lamps to underscore the change in tone as the night deepens.
The performances are riveting. MacKenzie-Roy ably negotiates the various emotions of the aspiring academic, seeming naive early on but growing increasingly calculating as events unfold. His drunkenness is thoroughly credible.
Guntner’s poignant Honey doesn’t say much, but it’s clear through Guntner’s subtle playing that Honey is taking it all in. Though a refugee from the Bible Belt, she’s a younger version of Martha: observant, frustrated and shrewd, hitching her wagon to her husband’s star as a way out.
Vermilyea recently stepped into her role because of the sudden indisposition of the previous Martha, but she makes the part her own, script in hand notwithstanding. From her opening raucous laugh to her pitiful replies to George at play’s end, Vermilyea’s Martha prowls the stage searching for a worthy adversary. She shouts and snarls, the utterances of someone desperately hungry for life.
And Pickus, drably dressed in a tan sweater vest and khakis, is her quiet but steely complement, a man deeply aware of his shortcomings, enthralled by Martha even as he is resentful of her criticisms. Pickus’ George is always one step ahead of everyone else: watch his eyes, his smile, and listen to his sarcasm. This is a three-dimensional performance.
Congratulations to the group for its revival of this American masterpiece.