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Theater Review:

"WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF," Shattered Globe Theatre at Victory Gardens Theater


At the liquor-soaked heart of "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf," Edward Albee’s penultimate 1962 drama about marital erosion, totter two couples (one older; the other a younger parallel) crying out for self-fulfillment in the midst of intoxicated rage. Their caustic verbal punches are the bawdy veneer hiding a lifetime of emptiness and lonely resentment.

Yet with so much of the action revolving around drunken bellowing, it can be a temptation for actors to turn Albee’s rhythmically ravenous and psychologically layered speech into so much noisy bravado. But Shattered Globe Theatre’s tragically chiseled production, under the sharp and nuanced direction of Louis Contey, never resorts to unbridled scenery devouring. In fact, its broodingly measured tone, punctuated by anger and lust at key dramatic intervals, more forcefully mirrors Martha and George’s gradually disintegrating plight. This gracefully eviscerating production runs through March 3 at Victory Gardens Theater.

A fierce dramatic warhorse, "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf" suggests the motif of suicidal discontent through its titular troubled 20th century author. The play takes place in Martha and George’s home on a New England university campus amid stacks of stale books and booze bottles drained of comfort and answers.

Martha, the alcoholic daughter of the university’s domineering president, forever "brays" at her impotent husband, George, a history professor devoid of ambition. But George has plenty of lethal ammunition stored up inside his own dehumanized shell of a person. Over the course of one endless night of binging and bickering, the antagonistic couple (whose first names imply a warped all-American ideal) "entertain" a slyly ambitious young biology professor, Nick, and his pseudo-prudish wife, Honey, whose main defense mechanism is her self-imposed oblivion.

George serves as the dutiful, enabling bartender for this never-ending party/brawl, which leaves more than colossal hangovers in its wake. George and Martha’s desperate and tyrannical games include seduction, humiliation, attempted murder and one final soul-deadening revelation that underscores all of their impotent lives. And, as the seemingly innocent bystanders, Nick and Honey eventually reveal a sham marriage with its own share of perverse secrets. Ultimately, everyone uses and abuses each other to remind themselves they are alive.

At nearly three hours, "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf" can be daunting on the nerves and eardrums. But the stellar Shattered Globe cast, who truly performs the play like an unsettling and impeccably dissonant string quartet, fiercely engages viewers rather than tries their endurance. Contey takes an intriguing iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove approach to Albee’s marital monsoon. Audiences can easily get lured into the stylishly dysfunctional trappings of this all-night character-bashing bash without getting beaten over the head with a brute force of overblown proclamatory acting.

Linda Reiter, an intensely insightful actress, has landed the role of a lifetime. Her Martha is no mere vitriolic viper. She’s an irreparably damaged woman, who lashes out at the only man who really loves her as a simultaneous sort of megalomania, denial and self-flagellation. The verbal sadomasochism she and Doug McDade’s weary, faux-bruised George inflict on each other serves as a desperate cry for and self-loathing resistance to loving intimacy. Both Reiter (who can chomp on ice cubes with gleeful desperation) and McDade delicately negotiate these painful paradoxes.

Two impressive actors tackle the equally challenging roles of the "victims": Ryan Kitley endows Nick with just the right suave, self-smug demeanor to make him both attractive and abhorrent; and Jennifer Kern bravely takes Honey on a horrifying journey that tears her character’s face-saving naivete to shreds. All of their secrets are cloaked in Karen Kawa’s proper period costumes, with Martha’s flowing satins suggesting a ridiculous desire to soar to ecstatic heights.

Scenic designer Kevin Hagan mirrors these "civilized" yet ineffectual individuals’ figuratively clawing at each other’s flesh in the tastefully decorated home’s tattered siding and frayed edges – as if cutting through the sinews of respectability and revealing a knot of frazzled, but dead, nerve endings.•

Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf" runs through March 3 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln. Tickets: $18-$22. Call 773-871-3000.

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