Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at The Jungle Theater

Michelle Barber as Martha in the Jungle Theater's production of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF - Photo by Michal Daniel

When first produced in October 1962 (at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis), the boozy and vituperative Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (at the Jungle, 2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis, through May 30, jungletheater.com) blew through staid and polite Broadway like a cleansing fire. It showed us how frightening – indeed how downright dangerous – plays can be. Awarded a Pulitzer, the advisory committee, shocked by the play’s language and frank sexuality, withdrew the prize. The author, Edward Albee, became a celebrity and American theater would never be the same.

49 years later the play retains much, though not all, of its power. Lines like “Screw you,” and “Let’s play Hump the Hostess” no longer produce delicious shudders of horror. The plot, academic politics, has been visited and revisited (by novelists especially) too often. Still, George and Martha’s spiral into a vicious Walpurgisnacht, spurred on by three A.M. booze and their (seemingly) innocent guests Nick and Honey, going from “fun and games” to something arguably worse than death, still produces shocks.

The Jungle director/set designer, Bain Boehlke, stages the piece in an odd yet somehow perfect room, a concrete bunker painted a weird green but with enough realistic detail to make it believable as a college professor’s living room. In this way, the play constantly threatens to become abstract, pure ritual. This tension between the intellectual and dramatic serves the piece nicely. Boehlke perceives and revels in this aspect of Albee’s writing, and it makes him a first rate Albee-ian director (a skill he has utilized to good effect in productions of Seascape and A Delicate Balance).

Stephen Yoakam is a natural for the part of George and he plays him masterfully. Yoakam’s George is dapper, not at all rumpled, with a crisp suit, wire rim glasses, a neatly trimmed goatee, hand thrust meekly into his pocket, bent forward. Ah, but the voice, sharp, expressive, quickly turning nasty. George controls and manipulates the other characters, eyes flashing – like a lion-tamer. Just try and take your eyes off him.

As the brandy-swilling Honey, Jane Froiland strikes the perfect balance between mousey frumpiness and gutsy spur-’em-on voyeurism. She animates the play’s action. Similarly good is Sean Michael Dooley as Nick. Dooley came in at the last moment to replace an actor with a medical emergency. It gives his Nick a shoot-from-the-hip connectedness. Excellent.

As Martha, Michelle Barber is good – she nicely captures Martha’s sense of humor and her raw sexuality. Her dancing enthralls. She stands in a corner, sucking on cigarettes, gulping vodka, then suddenly takes the stage, jabbing and parrying with boxer-like viciousness. She misses, however, Martha’s earth-mother presence. And the booze doesn’t make her bare and open, as it should; somehow, a wall goes up. Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf thus becomes George’s play, and I don’t think it should be. Still, Barber gives a solid performance, one that will age well. It’s nice to see an actor, who has done primarily musical comedy, really stretch like this. She’s a find.

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, like Martha herself, is well into its 40s and has been around the block several times. But it still has power.

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