In “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” George and Martha, a well-to-do middle-age couple, invite Nick and Honey, a younger couple, into their home following a university faculty party.
After witnessing verbal abuse, taunts and passive aggression between George and Martha, Nick and Honey quickly realize they have front row seats to the breakdown of George and Martha’s hostile marriage.
Over the course of the night, unsavory pieces of information from both couples’ relationships come to light, adding even more tension to the evening, which eventually culminates in an explosive revelation.
By staging his production in the round at Spokane Civic Theatre’s Firth J. Chew Studio Theatre, director Troy Nickerson is giving audiences the same all-access pass to the drama between both couples.
“There’s something about in the theater, it all takes place in one night, in one space,” he said. “I like the idea that you’re right there … You’re right in the heat of things.”
The Edward Albee play premiered in 1962 and won the Tony Award for Best Play the following year. The production also won the 1962-63 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play.
A 1966 film adaptation starred Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal and Sandy Dennis. The movie was nominated for 13 Academy Awards and won five, including acting trophies for both Taylor and Dennis.
Since seeing a performance of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” years ago, Nickerson has wanted to work on a production of the three-act play.
“It’s such a deep, interesting story,” he said. “It’s one of those plays that as a young man and growing up in the theater I put on such a level of something that someday I want to do, that I want to have that challenge… It’s great to do things that you’re afraid of.”
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” which opens Friday, stars Jamie Flanery as George, Mary Starkey as Martha, Danny Anderson as Nick and Emily Jones as Honey.
Nickerson knew handling the emotional content of each role required four very skilled actors and took that into consideration when casting the play, though he also considered the looks and ages of the actors to best paint the picture he wanted to create.
Though he has enjoyed working on productions with 30-plus cast members in the past, Nickerson has taken to the one-on-one time having such a small cast has allowed.
“I love that because, boy, you really take that journey with them,” he said. “You get right in the middle of it and go at it, especially with a piece like this.”
Blurring the lines between reality and illusion, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is a heavy piece, one that, in Nickerson’s words, gets “pretty dark and pretty in your head.”
As such, the cast tries to keep things light during rehearsals to balance the tense context of the play.
But the drama of the production is part of the reason Nickerson thinks “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” has continued to resonate with audience members over the years.
“What I ask from theater is a well-told story that’s taking me on a journey, whether laughing, crying, whatever it is, that I am in some way moved, changed, felt something and was taken somewhere,” he said. “I think this show has that… I think there is stuff that we as people in relationships relate to but it’s a brilliantly written story that unfolds and shocks and surprises and horrifies. How could you not like that?”
While “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” may not be for everyone, Nickerson is proud that Civic and Spokane audiences are willing to take on such a dark play.
“I’m glad the theater’s doing it and that Spokane is doing it,” he said. “It’s important that we still do these kind of pieces. Everything can’t be light and fluffy. We have to expose ourselves to everybody’s story.”
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