By JOHN DeMERS
If you had perfect recall and could draw up a list of the cruelest things you ever said to everybody you ever loved, might have loved or used to love, stringing the lines together with darker notions than you hopefully ever thought about the human condition and finer, funnier retorts that you probably ever unleashed, you’d have some concept of what Edward Albee achieved when he wrote “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Catch the fresh new production by Stark Naked Theatre Company (at Spring Street Studios through March 26) and you just might feel guilty for having such a good time.
Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl are not only co-founders and co-artistic directors of Stark Naked but are, in real life, married. Ever since Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor committed Albee’s battling George and Martha to the big screen, there’s been a bit of extra energy whenever actual couples play the roles. In this case, the two bring layers of intimacy to George and Martha, at least partly explaining why they stay together – and therefore why they seem permanent POWs in a marital war zone.
There is a good bit of onion-peeling in the script, layer after layer. There is the drinking – oceans of drinking – as George and Martha come home after midnight from a party at her father’s house, her father being the president of the university at which George has long taught and, we realize, steadfastly failed to rise in the ranks. Martha invited a young (and handsome) professor over for a nightcap with his equally young wife and, literally as well as figuratively, the stage is set. George and Martha don’t just have a train car full of axes to grind. They have an audience.
In the core roles, Lehl and Tobin-Lehl are both fast and furious, riding the alcohol-fueled roller-coaster of recrimination until it threatens to topple off the track. These two have been magnificent before, together and separately, but they could tour in this production and people ought to line up to buy tickets. While certainly the lines carry the weight of their years of anger, they back up the impact with a nightlong cascade of physical expressions, from Martha’s seductive behavior toward the young professor (according to George, hardly the first) to George’s tightrope walk among defeat, surrender and not-so-sweet revenge.
Matt Hune and Teresa Zimmermann are excellent as the younger couple, all “Honey” and “Darling” until George and Martha divide and conquer. As in a police interrogation, the two “suspects” start telling desperately different stories once they’re under the harsh lights in separate rooms. As with the protagonists, alcohol makes them vulnerable to the emptiness and shallow conspiracies of their own lives. People will and do get hurt here before dawn brings an unsteady release.
The play’s three acts take place in one living room, effectively designed and lit by Kevin Rigdon. Impressive support comes from costume designer Macy Lyne and sound designer Chris Bakos. Stage director Jennifer Dean expertly pulls off marshalling all these forces of nature and man for an evening of the best catharsis that live theater can bring.