SALT LAKE CITY–It’s as important to choose a worthy opponent as a worthy partner. So stands the lesson learned in Edward Albee‘s deeply twisted “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” put on for the first time in several decades by the intrepid Pinnacle Acting Company, under the direction of L.L. West.
The dark, fiendish little play tells the story of a married couple, George and Martha, who invite a younger couple, Nick and his unnamed wife (merely referred to as “Honey”), into their home for the evening. The night unravels quickly as Martha and George–one an overbearing alcoholic, the other a playfully truculent schemer–impose their sadistic chess game upon the unsuspecting guests.
In his director’s note, West mentions carrying on a “love affair” with this work. Upon watching the finished product, his meaning was evident. Everything, from the furniture and bar glasses (set design by Geofrey Michael Eastman) to the meticulously planned lighting (lighting by Natalie Colony) to the dazzlingly deliberate blocking choices, was like a carefully choreographed dance set to devastatingly cruel domestic dialogue.
This production created a world with clearly defined boundaries so that even as the actors felt loose and natural, their execution still felt precise and contextually authentic. In a scene where Nick threatens George, the young man seems to have taken over George’s house, asserting himself in the center of the room, seated in a chair, his feet lazily and disrespectfully sprawled onto the coffee table. At the same time George, momentarily displaced, finds himself crouching behind the sofa on the far end of the stage, listening in an almost childlike attitude to what this contender for his career and his wife has to say.
As the play’s muscle character, Teresa Sanderson plays a Martha who is at times cold, terrifying, graceful, vulnerable, and cloying (among other qualities). Sanderson played the part with such power and fortitude, that she could have been living in Martha’s tormented skin herself. Sanderson’s broad emotional range alternated between derisive laughter, trembling rage, almost pitiable softness, and contumacious coldness; all of which was surprisingly endearing even as it was painful to witness. One of my favorite moments in Sanderson’s purposeful performance was when she haughtily and insouciantly chewed the ice from her drink as her husband defended himself before their guests.
Jared Larkin was a mollifying presence as the husband George, who goes from being sympathetically weak to uncomfortably pernicious as the play goes on, all disguised under a thick layer of humor and likability. Larkin’s comedic ability made the role a personal favorite, despite George’s cruel intentions. George is written as an apparent underdog, and Larkin took his time in dancing around the stage, carefully designing his plot the same way a spider might weave her web. I particularly appreciated his use of the small space that allowed for intimate whispering and low-level dialogue, which lent to the disarmingly placid nature of his portrayal.
Mike T. Brown played the multi-layered character of Nick with aplomb. Several of Brown’s delicate, subtle choices gave Nick breath-taking depth. A favorite example was when rubbed his fingers along the back of a bench, displaying Nick’s agitation as the formidable Martha showed aggressive sexual interest in him. Another moment, in which he attentively fixed Martha a drink, elegantly betrayed Nick’s complex emotions.
As the unnamed wife “Honey”, Marin Kohler was a child-like, sloppy, dull, irrelevant, unstrung marshmallow. Kohler’s skill was in managing to be funny while remaining magnificently dull, equal parts abrasive and monotonous. As tempted as I was to feel nothing for the thoroughly squashable character, Kohler managed to make her sympathetic, best illustrated when she emphatically mourned with George and Martha, despite having known them only few hours. Honey’s duality of character was apparent in this display of emotions that were as infantile as they were genuine.
It is rare that a little piece of theater sparkles as brightly as this one. The precision of the director, cast, and crew made this a marvelous production I’d recommend taking the time to see.