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 to share in some casual commingling after a faculty event at the college wherein the two men are colleagues. The night unravels faster than can be predicted as the sadistic chess game between the alcoholic and overbearing Martha and the truculent and playfully calculating George unfolds before the unsuspecting guests.
It says something of a production, I think, wherein the acting, directing, and technical aspects are all affected so flawlessly that there is hardly a need to speak of anything but the beautifully drawn, brutal story that is enjoyed by those participating. Nevertheless, I will speak on these things, because they are indeed worth bringing to the attention of the theater-going community.
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, laid out by set designer Geofrey Michael Eastman, to the meticulously planned lighting, carried out by Natalie Colony, to the dazzlingly deliberate blocking choices made by the director himself, were like a carefully choreographed dance set to some of the most cruel and devastating domestic dialogue I’ve ever heard.
The care and attention put into this production definitely show. A director who allows his actors to live within a clearly defined and authentic world is a talented one. I marveled in how loose and natural the movement executed by the performers was, while at the same time remaining careful and precise. In one scene, as Nick, the younger man, threatens George in the latter’s own home, 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 while 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 levels of cold, terrifying, graceful, vulnerable, and cloying (among other qualities), with power and fortitude, living in the skin of Martha as naturally as if she had been the tormented character herself. I watched as Sanderson laughed in derision at her husband and guests–all of whom she considered beneath her–trembled with rage at her husband’s little games, became softened and almost pitiable with the mention of her son, and drove an icy draft around the intimate space with her hard, contumacious nature, which was surprisingly endearing 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 the source of their son’s paternity before their guests.
Jared Larkin was a mollifying presence in the piece as the husband George, who goes from being sympathetically weak to uncomfortably pernicious as the play goes on, all lightly disguised under a thick layer of humor and likability. Indeed, it was Larkin’s comedic ability that made this role a personal favorite, despite his cruel intentions. The play is written in such a way that George seems the underdog, the victim, but it is clear by the end that he is as much a manipulative mastermind as his wife, and definitely a deserving match for her, as tenacious in his callousness as she. Larkin took his time in dancing around the stage, weaving the plots that would undo his character’s prey as carefully as a spider might weave her web. He drew laughs from Albee’s sardonic words effortlessly, catching me quite off guard when he pulled the rug out from under his quarry’s feet. I particularly appreciated, as exampled by his performance, that the space was small enough to allow for intimate whispering and low-level dialogue, which lent to the disarmingly placid nature of his portrayal.