Like the bloodstained tooth of a feral hound, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? glistens with primal and terrifying beauty. Arguably one of best plays written, from one of America's greatest playwrights, Edward Albee's masterpiece is given its gruesome due in the Steppenwolf revival currently running at The Booth.
Tracy Letts (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County) gives a well-paced performance as George, starting with a ridged, almost stilted quality that gradually loosens with the liquor, yet never completely exposing his inner workings from behind the bulwarks of the impenetrable and calculating war machine that is his nature.
His presence is relaxed and controlled, almost too much so for some of the stage combat and bursts of violence, but magnificently seething as he plays with his prey and plots with his predatory intellect. Letts strikes with precision and timing, mulling over his next move when not in action and playing a wicked chess game that creates a striking contrast with his wife's more physical punches below the belt.
Amy Morton has a very original take on the infamous Martha; where harsher accents often work for this character, Morton is devoid of such extremities, making her a compatible match for Letts's George and leaving Elizabeth Taylor's luminous film interpretation looking like a Disney villain by comparison. Morton offers us a far more subdued understanding yet maintains the frenetic energy that is essential to the part, lashing out wildly when tested or testing and yet somehow offering a more human and exposed version of the ever-tragic Martha. Both Letts and Morton work their slow drunks brilliantly, standing out as heavyweights against their less-tolerant counterparts.
Carrie Coon and Madison Dirks give equally striking Broadway debuts as the hapless couple that have the misfortune to fall into the tempestuous web of George and Martha's marriage. Coon flits and simpers as Honey, the piece's most delicate character, desperately trying to hold her own as a wounded and bleeding fish in a tank with sharks. Her sickness over both the alcohol and the circumstances is as believable as her delayed realizations and drunken slips. Dirks proves a contender as Nick, beaming with youthful confidence and blind assurance of his plans, making for a once-solid statue that crumbles beautifully as his coolness is progressively chiseled away.
Director Pam MacKinnon, coming off of her stunning work on Clybourne Park, once again masters the movement of her stage. Conducting the pacing traffic of these four caged animals, she captures their underlying rawness while polishing the guise of a normal living room inhabited by seemingly normal people. MacKinnon fosters sincere connections between her actors, bonding them with even directing and an organic approach that flows so well with this cast. From director to cast to design, there is little left to be desired by this production.
Good things come from Chicago, and this Steppenwolf transfer only supports the haunting realization that the center of meaningful theater in the U.S. appears to have shifted West. While we here in N.Y.C. are choking on dutifully tired revivals, substance-free spectacles, and pre-fabricated jukebox musicals, they're producing masterpieces off Lake Michigan. Occasionally we're fortunate enough to have one blow East. - C. Jefferson Thom