Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Actors Theatre of San Francisco’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, directed by Keith Phillips, is outstanding, exquisitely crafted and well worth seeing. It has been said that Albee was never satisfied with productions of his work and preferred not to view them, having observed actors fail to achieve what he had written. Achieving what the master playwright had written is indeed a challenge for the actor and the director alike. This production would more likely reassure than disappoint him.

Actors Theatre is aging like a very fine wine. Since the company moved to its new venue on Bush Street in 2006, multiple transformations have occurred, each one bringing a warmer and finer tone to the location than the last. The ambient quality of the theater is similar to a European café, comfortable, literate and tasteful.

Songs of Billie Holiday linger in the air prior to the show and during intermissions. The lights come up on George and Martha’s sedate living room in New Carthage. A rich leather couch occupies center stage, with a companion armchair downstage right. A pendulum clock sits against an upstage wall near the door. James Baldock’s, Biz Duncan’s and Rachel Klyce’s set is tasteful, comfortable and apropos for the academic world it houses.

George (Christian Phillips) and Martha (Rachel Klyce) stagger in from her father’s party for new faculty, her father being the head of the university. Klyce’s Martha is dead on, fresh, biting and real. Phillips’ George milks the humor in Albee’s barbs to perfection. Their clever and affectionate verbal jousting reflects the marriage as a well worn, favorite pair of slippers. It is after 2 a.m., and Martha announces that guests are coming. It isn’t long before Nick (Alessandro Garcia) and Honey (Jessica Coghill), a young biology professor and his wife, arrive. The affectionate sparring between Martha and George slips into darkness as verbal daggers begin flying across the room.

The only weak spot in this exceptional production is Martha’s monologue in Act Three, an extraordinarily challenging monologue by any standard. It was delivered from the safety zone of a sane and clever, albeit drunk, adult woman, which is not where Martha is at that moment. By Albee’s writing, Martha is a confused and broken child in an adult body who at that point is not in control, a much scarier situation to portray.

Keith Phillips’ direction is remarkably deft. Dimensions that are seldom seen in this play come into focus. The depth and complexity of Martha and George’s entangled love is palpable. Nick and Honey have strong personalities of their own and aren’t just victims; they’re part of the recipe. Coghill’s Honey is delightful in her simple-minded drunkenness, while Garcia’s Nick has the backbone to be a real threat to George. Martha’s dance with Nick is cleverly staged upstage while Honey and George look on from the sofa, effecting realism in place of awkward farce. The humor is delicious. It’s a genuine madhouse, and it’s a real party.

Actors Theatre of San Francisco’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf plays Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. through December 19 at 855 Bush Street, San Francisco. Tickets may be obtained by telephone at (415) 345-1287 or online at www.actorstheatresf.org.

Eryka M. Fraczek
Member, SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle