Sometimes it takes a whole generation for a play to escape its time frame and become a true classic. In 1962, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was all about the squirmy secrets lurking beneath the placid surface of a New England college community—particularly, the lengths to which barren women would go to fulfill their pronatal destiny and men, their masculine imperative. In 2010, however, such idyllic landscapes are found only in real estate brochures, childless couples are no longer objects of pity, and not every metaphor imbued with a political agenda, and so Edward Albee's portrait of marital compromise raises different questions:
First, could the constantly squabbling George and Martha actually be the perfect soul-mates? Both thwarted in their attempts to venture beyond the roles meted out for them by a society steeped in sham and hypocrisy, their suspicions color even their own affections, so that they take solace in the fellowship that comes of revealing the lie to others, reserving their softer sides for an idealized fantasy of unconditional innocence. And speaking of innocence, are Nick and Honey, their latest victims, complicit in their excoriation? Why don't they leave, together or singly? Or are George and Martha's interrogations, in fact, a gantlet meant to test the mettle of all new professors at this institution, with George simply deciding tonight to take the game into overtime?
Whatever the answers—and Albee's not saying, any more than he's telling whether the hitherto-forbidden melody to the song that gives the show its deceptively puckish title represents a change of his, or Disney's, mind—this Steppenwolf production is not the popular screams-and-whispers marathon modeled on the 1966 film. Instead, director Pam MacKinnon has instructed her actors to play text instead of attitude—a decision stretching the running time somewhat, but making for a surgical precision allowing each of the four characters to render us as privy as they, themselves, to the stratagems under scrutiny.
And unencumbered by cheap visual gags, too: Honey's false pregnancy is a thing of the past. Martha is no blowsy harridan, but a sleek and tastefully attired academic matron, nor is Nick the caricatured midwesterner so beloved of coastal audiences. Indeed, the ambience is so much more riveting for its understated plausibility that we wonder why it took the playwright so long to overcome his fear of handing over his first-born to these sensitive artists.