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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Guest Review by Sean Cummings

Gabrielle Rose, Meg Roe, Craig Erickson, Kevin McNulty. Photo by David Cooper.Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee
Directed by John Wright
Blackbird Theatre Production
Arts Club Theatre Granville Island Stage
playing till March 12,2011

Guest Reviewer: Sean Cummings

Vancouver, BC:  How I have managed to not see or read any version of this play to date is a mystery to me.  As a theatre practitioner, I work with playwrights who cite Edward Albee as being a major influence on their work.  But my preference to experience all things before I have to learn about them works well for experiencing theatre.  Luckily, this production is good. In fact, it is so good that I was a little sad that I went alone and had no one to share it with.  Of course, there were plenty of people at the Granville Island Stage the night I attended Blackbird's production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid Of Virginia Wolf?  This was one of those shows that I wanted to talk about with a buddy at intermission, of which there were two.  But enough about my adventures going solo to the Arts Club.

Who's Afraid Of Virginia Wolf? made a huge splash in 1962 when it opened on Broadway.  The script was so raw for the time in its language that a film version with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1966 had to make some compromises for the screenplay to get it past censors.  While tame by today's standards, Albee's use of dialect never relies upon foul language to tell his story.  Instead, the play demands actors deft enough at accessing emotional depth and comic timing that anything other than a top notch cast would sink this script.  This script feels so truthful that it will simply expose actors not up for the task.

I arrived early to the Granville Island stage which gave me a chance to take in the set design.  The set by designer Marti Wright was handsome, rich and immaculately produced in period hues and decor right down to the bottle of Wild Turkey.  It was a feast for the eyes and provided an atmosphere that transported me back in time.  Even before the play started I wanted to sit down for a good argument with cheap whisky and too many cigarettes. 

The setting is simple enough.  Married couple George (Kevin McNulty) and Martha (Gabrielle Rose) arrive home from a staff party already three sheets to the wind.  Martha has invited over a young couple, Nick (Greg Erickson) and Honey (Meg Roe),  and clearly intends on extending her drunken pleasure with some repartee where the men are the primary targets with George being the bull's eye. 

When George married Martha he was essentially marrying the boss's daughter and all the pitfalls that go along with not measuring up to daddy.  And Martha, by marrying into the 'business' so to speak, was damning her husband to the ever scornful eye of his father in-law and providing herself with an almost guaranteed arena for marital gladiator games.  Nick and Honey are younger mirrors to George and Martha and that clearly is the reason Martha was drawn to inviting them over.  Mayhem takes over the stage for the next three hours as we see George and Martha use their guests to act out violently, playfully and cruelly on each other while the under currents of their lives are slowly exposed and the true nature of their turmoil is revealed with the  sunrise.  But who isn't afraid of the early morning when all that is waiting is the big bad truth that is the source of a bottomless despair?

Kevin McNulty and Gabrielle Rose. Photo by David CooperCraig Erickson embodies the polite, self-assured and contained Nick so completely that his slow and gradual move towards the drunken, insecure and explosive Nick is a wonder to watch.  Meg Roe gives a master class in subtlety that stands out even next to Gabrielle Rose's command of the role of Martha.  And I have to make a confession here.  I am a sucker for anything Gabrielle Rose does, as I am for actors who can so completely access emotional depth while maintaining command of the job at hand. 

But this production is Kevin McNulty's.  This is the kind of performance that leads people to say things like, "role he was born to play".  McNulty delivers on everything one could ask for from an actor in this role; depth, subtlety, vulnerability, timing, compassion.  It was inspiring to watch and humbling to experience.

Thankfully, director John Wright keeps out of the actors' way.  I never thought about the direction once during this play.  Which is the perfect result.  This production is just plain good theatre.

 Who would have thought an invitation for drinks would end like this?