Saturday, November 3, 2012

REVIEW: Clark's "Virginia Woolf" Dark but Desireable

Edward Albee’s classic play, "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," opened last night at Clark College’s Decker Theatre. It is directed by Mark Owsley and runs through November 17. Tickets are at the door or at the Clark College Bookstore, 360-992-2815 or

A Dark Desire 

Gossip had it in the beginning that it was the story of same sex couples. Albee vehemently denied this and I tend to agree with him. The original Broadway production featured Uta Hagen (one of the finest acting teachers), Arthur Hill, George Grizzard and Sandy Dennis (who reprised her role in the movie version).

The very good film version by Mike Nichols was with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Dennis and George Segal. The film won some well-deserved Academy Awards, but it also cuts over a half hour out of the play and changes the setting a couple of times, both are unnecessary. If you truly want to see Albee’s story, as he intended, see the play version.

The dark drama is set in the home of a middle-aged couple, George (played by theater department head, H. Gene Biby) and his wife, Martha (Linda Owsley, wife of the director). He is a professor in the History Dept. of a small New England college, run by Martha’s father. After a faculty party, in the early hours of the morning, she invites the newly transplanted, young Biology teacher, Nick (Aaron Howell) and his wife, Honey (Emily Wells) to their house for drinks.

The cast of Clark College's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" From right to
Emily Wells, Aaron Howell, Linda Owsley and H. Gene Biby.
Early on it is plain to see this is not going to be just an ordinary welcoming party. As the night progresses toward another day, they will play mind games--games that will lead them to questioning their own sanity and will, ultimately, change all their lives forever. The games are filled with elements of truth, dare, illusion, secrets revealed and stories dispelled. Mix them all together and you have “Fun and Games at George and Martha’s House.”

Nick is ambitious and is determined to “plow his way to the top” if need be. Honey is rich, but spoiled and sheltered and not really up to connecting with the outside world, as she “gets sick a lot.” Martha, spoiled (and possibly abused) by a domineering father, is unhappy with her lot in life and never lets George forget it. And George (the story is from his POV0, silently controls the Games toward their bittersweet conclusion.

Deeper and Darker

Inbred within the story are even darker elements: Nick, the scientist, wanting to manipulate genes, in order to create a Master Race; George, the historian, seeing history possibly repeating itself, both universally and personally; and Martha and Honey, potential incubators of the next generation, fearing of giving birth to that legacy. Nothing is quite as it seems at George and Martha’s. And telling too much of the games would spoil the surprises.

George and Martha fight and fume.
But, amazingly, it is a love story, albeit tangled and disjointed. A man, loving a woman so much, he is willing to create illusions with her, so that she can hang onto sanity. And an unhappy woman, hating that self-same man, for loving her just the way she is.

And what, you may ask, has Virginia Woolf to do with all this? Ms. Woolf was a writer who, to some extent, concentrated her writing on stream-of consciousness and the deep-seeded truths that inhabit a person’s life: A reality deep within one. The meaning will become clear when this ditty is reprised at the end of the play.

The actors are all uniformly good. Biby inhabits George with a quite command. It is a powerful performance as his character is key to the success of the story. He tackles the part, both as a character and as an actor, like a bulldog, not willing to let go of his prey. Owsley blesses us with a Martha that is beseechingly bitchy and yet refreshing vulnerable at times—a delicate balance, teetering nicely between illusion and reality. According to George, you need to know the difference between the two, but then carry on as if you didn’t care. They are well-suited as a lean, mean fighting machine.

Nick and Honey are harder characters to get your teeth into. They appear one-dimensional but they are simply empty books, with baggage, waiting to be written upon. Howell is, in looks, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, physically fit product of the New Order he proposes. He struggles mightily and effectively with the weight of that burden until he, at long last, sees the light. Wells is superb in showing us the naivety and vulnerability of Honey, who must, in the final result, change her ways even though she may not ever understand why.

Direction and Design

The direction and design of the production by Mark Owsley, hits the mark in keeping the action flowing and interest high in such a confined space. His actors seemed to have found all the little nuances and layers necessary to reveal the story in such compelling way. Not easy to do over a three-hour period, but well done by Owsley!

H. Gene Biby and Linda Owsley as George and Martha. All photos provided.
Keep in mind the length of the production and that it involves very adult situations and uses harsh language. It is an exhausting journey, from darkness to dawn, but well worth the trip. If you see it, tell them Dennis sent you.

Review by Dennis Sparks for SWWASTAR. Mr. Sparks was formerly a Portland theatre reviewer for the Vancouver Voice (now defunct), and is currently a free-lance reporter with his own blog site for Portland and Ashland theatre reviews:

All photos and video provided.

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