I was disappointed last April when New Surry Theater in Blue Hill pulled the plug on its entire production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” at the last minute, due to the serious illness of a cast member. I completely understood, of course, that sometimes the show simply cannot go on, and I wished the ailing actor a speedy recovery.
But as an occasional community theater actor myself, I could imagine the hours and hours that had gone into rehearsals and behind-the-scenes work for this complex and demanding show and how difficult it must have been to cancel it. Also, Virginia Woolf is one of my alltime favorite plays and I was really looking forward to seeing this new production.
So, I was thrilled when I saw it had been resuscitated and added to the theater’s lineup for the current season. Douglas and I drove over last Friday night to see it. We came home completely impressed. The cast was fabulous, the set, costumes and other stagecraft irreproachable. More to the point, we were left agreeably slack-jawed at the play’s brutal, sweet and slyly hilarious dialog and its shocking subversions of marriage, higher education and other revered cultural institutions.
I first read Edward Albee’s 1962 masterwork in 1998 as I was finishing a mid-life BA in English at the University of Maine. Although I had at some point in my youth seen the 1966 film version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, I had not appreciated then the cutting brilliance of the dialog or the harsh light it shone on a pivotal moment in American culture. To me, the film just seemed sordid; I learned recently that Albee himself felt it had stripped the essential humor out of his work.
But when, in my late 40s, I encountered the written work in my Survey of American Drama class, I was captivated from the very first line. Immediately, under the guidance of my terrific professor, it all made a kind of wonderful, corrosive, histrionic sense. On deeper consideration, I began, just a little, to understand its reflections on the hollowing-out of American values, the quicksilver changes taking place in our culture and, especially, the deep and irreversible impact of the feminist movement on just about every aspect of society.
There are many ways to read this play, and scholars have devoted themselves to interpreting Albee’s intentions and meaning. To me, a feminist reading is hard to dispute. The character of Martha — the bright, middle-aged daughter of a college president, disappointed in her marriage to her unambitious professor-husband George, with no realistic career aspirations of her own and unable to bear the children that would validate her womanhood — epitomizes the plight of women in the changing America of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
I was a child of 8 when “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” was published, and 12 when the film was released. By the time I was old enough to pay attention to the world around me and think about my prospects for education, career and marriage, much had changed. I had many more options and opportunities as I matured than my mother did, and I took them all for granted.
But in many ways, women of my generation and the generation that is maturing now have continued to struggle against the implicit assumptions of a male-dominant society, as well as explicit challenges such as inequality in pay and career advancement. Albee suggests that with every new frontier of freedom and opportunity come losses and tradeoffs, including the ‘safety’ and stability that come with proscribed roles and expectations. Martha has every reason to be afraid of the emerging feminist ideals that are shaking the foundations of her world. And so does George.
I loved this play so much when I read it back in 1998 that I persuaded three classmates to stage a scene with me, in lieu of writing a final exam. It was my first foray into live theater and I was simultaneously exhilarated and terrified. Of course, I played Martha. It was amazing, even in that wholly amateur setting before the accepting audience of my classmates, to hear her drunken, biting, brilliant lines issuing from my own polite mouth, to feel her rage and despair blossom in my own complacent breast.
Watching the show last Friday night, I was struck anew with the power and prescience of Albee’s work and the essential role that serious theater plays in our culture. This weekend is your last chance to appreciate New Surry Theater’s fine production; go see it if you can.