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Theater review: 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'

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When "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" opened on Broadway in 1962, it both captivated and polarized audiences. Edward Albee's (then) contemporary play about a frustrated middle-aged couple was cutting edge: the plot had sexual tension, alcohol, and cursing, all live on stage. Though it was vetoed for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1962, "Woolf" won the Tony Award for best play in 1963, and the script was adapted for a film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton just a few years later.

MAD Magazine, in a satirical 1967 cartoon spread about the film, perhaps best summed it up: "Who in heck is Virginia Woolf?" Spoiler: it's not a character in the plot, but a play on the Disney song, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?", that swaps in the name of author Virginia Woolf. The reason for the title is quite simple: Albee was inspired at a New York bar where he saw the phrase scrawled in soap on a bathroom mirror.

Wallbyrd Theatre Co., led by Virginia Monte, departs from its usual Shakespearean-themed offerings with this classic play (and will do so again in May 2019 with "The 39 Steps"). The turn to mid-20th century works is a refreshing one, coinciding with the company's move to The Avyarium, a new black box-style space tucked away on the second floor of the Village Gate.

The plot of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is a confusing one, but it begins simply enough. After they leave a faculty party, Martha informs her professor husband, George, that she's invited the newest faculty member and his young wife over for a nightcap. The greatest challenge within the next three hours is for the director and actors, who must make sense of this dense and at times heavy-handed play, but it's clear Monte and the four-person ensemble have spent countless hours crafting the show.

In the role of history professor George, Kevin Sweeney leads the cast, rarely leaving the stage at all. He leverages a hoarse stage voice to great effect, swelling to a full-on bray at several points. It's the voice of a character lugging a lifetime of baggage. As his desperate, older wife (and daughter of the college's president) Martha, Dawn Sargent masterfully executes a character who's both heartbreaking and exasperating to watch.

Rounding out the cast are Kiefer Schenk (Nick) and Sarah Kingsley (Honey), who play the newest all-star faculty member and his naive, waifish wife. At first blush, Schenk and Kingsley seem to portray two-dimensional characters, but the nuance of each actor grows as the play progresses, and these younger ensemble members prove an impressive match for their middle-aged counterparts.

Infidelity, profanity, alcoholism, marital discord: Everything hidden from the bridge and rotary clubs of the day is dragged out and strung from the rafters. The plot toes the line between a chess match and a championship bout, every disclosure and conversational misstep turning to another player's advantage minutes (or, in this case, hours) later. The audience is seated flanking the stage, and the square, Mid-century living room set (also designed by Virginia Monte) grows more like a boxing ring with each passing act.

As is typical of Monte's shows, much conscientious effort has gone into the design of the production, from the worn, period-style living room of George and Martha's home to the deliciously "Mad Men"-esque costumes by Linda Monte. There's also a good deal of fight choreography, by Alec Barbour and Cassie Buscemi, fluidly worked into the production.

By the end of the three-hour production (including two 10-minute intermissions), the audience looks as worn out as the characters, emotionally and physically exhausted from the suspense and toll of the play's content. And what of the plot twist at the end? As Sweeney's character George says amidst gulps of would-be Scotch: "That's for me to know and you to find out."

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