Friday, February 27, 2015

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? • St. Louis Actors' Studio

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," one of playwright Edward Albee's most notable works, premiered in 1962 and picked up five Tony Awards. The play was also selected for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1963, but the subject matter (a corrosive marriage, filled to the brim with booze, naughty language and sex) was controversial for its time, resulting in an overrule of the awards committee, and no prize for drama awarded that year. Typically, what may have been scandalous in the 60's seems tame to modern audiences, but the ability of Albee's play to still stun speaks to its potency. Under John Contini's shrewd direction and a rock solid cast, none of that potency is lost at St. Louis Actors' Studio's production. So, yeah. Get a ticket and buckle up.

We begin with George (William Roth) and Martha (Kari Ely) returning home from a college faculty party late at night, where George is an associate professor of history, when Martha tells him that she's invited a young couple over for a nightcap. George complains that it's way too late for guests, but Martha's father, the president of the college, insisted that they be nice to the couple. These first minutes of the first act contain laughs and jabs shared and launched between this couple of 23 years, and lay down the general brush strokes of their marriage, with Martha landing harsh insults at every turn, and George parrying every incoming attack with seemingly tepid counters.

William Roth (George), Betsy Bowman (Honey),
Kari Ely (Martha) and Michael Amoroso (Nick).
Photo credit: STLAS
Shortly after their guests, Nick (Michael Amoroso), a handsome biology professor -- new to the college, and his wife, Honey (Betsy Bowman) show up, the games George and Martha play become more interesting and intense, because now there are two new players. Nick and Honey are caught in the crossfire of the brutal rituals George and Martha have learned to practice, and after a truly staggering amount of alcohol, bold flirtation, allusions to a mysterious son, and uneasy interaction, Nick finds himself on the defense, and poor Honey finds herself in the bathroom, out of her depth and praying to the porcelain god, sweetly but obviously not able to keep up with the happenings.

William Roth (George) and Kari Ely (Martha).
Photo credit: STLAS
Though George gets his jabs in during the course of the night, it isn't until near dawn when he chooses to shatter the myth that gives weight to one of the only things he and Martha share, playing his last card in this battle royale. After a wrenching night (for the actors as well as the audience), George and Martha are left alone, tending to the bruises they've inflicted, with an unexpected, but true love for each other.

Ely's Martha, frustrated at her husband's lack of fight -- always pushing his limits, cuts with the precision of a surgeon, but Ely is able to show a vulnerable glint that surprises, and makes your heart ache by the end. Roth, as the rather schlubby George, catches you off-guard when he comes on, and after his abuse, makes you root for him (in a somewhat subversive way). Amoroso turns in a great performance as Nick, an up-and-coming professor who seems confident enough to adjust to whatever he encounters early in the play, but sympathetically buckles under the weight, as Martha's unrelenting come-ons persist and the punches of a more mature colleague ropes him into a night he never bargained for. Bowman provides not only a slice of comic relief, but also a skillful representation of a victim, genuinely wounded, whose personal information has been spilled during the course of the night. Patrick Huber makes his usual magic, making his wood paneled, jumbled set at the Gaslight's space seem bigger than it is, also lighting the action, with Teresa Doggett's costumes, Contini's sound design and Carla Landis Evans providing the property design.

Kari Ely (Martha) and William Roth (George).
Photo credit: STLAS
Don't think you can pass this play up because you've seen the film. The opportunity to see it onstage is worth every penny. Don't miss it. Only a few performances left.


WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

Written by Edward Albee
Directed by John Contini
The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through March 1 | tickets: $30.25 - $35.25
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Cast:
Kari Ely* (Martha), William Roth* (George), Betsy Bowman (Honey) and Michael Amoroso (Nick).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic and lighting design by Patrick Huber; sound design by John Contini; costume design by Teresa Doggett; wig design by Will Vicari; props design by Carla Landis Evans; fight choreographer, Shaun Sheley; stage manager, Amy J. Paige.

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