There’s nothing to fear in Bear & Co’s new production, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, except for maybe some sore legs. Playing at the Gladstone this month, Edward Albee’s classic text, under the helm of local director Ian Farthing, clocks in at a solid two hours and fifty minutes (that’s including two fifteen minute intermissions). The production itself is certainly not bad, however, I was starkly reminded why I don’t frequent the Gladstone as often as I might or probably should as a theatre critic: the amount of legroom in those seats is abysmal.
Written in the early 60s, the text mainly focuses on the marriage breakdown of Martha and George. Deconstruction of language and power games feature prominently throughout the piece as George and Martha draw an unwitting younger couple, Nick and Honey, into their bitter and frustrated relationship one night after a university faculty party. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a highly acclaimed piece of dramatic theatre and frequently revived on contemporary stages. Though this was my first time experiencing Albee’s work, I think that this production is a successful one.
The stage is set up like you might imagine a classic living room drama: there is a couch directly centre stage, a couple of cushy arm chairs, a fully stocked bar and a trendy piece of artwork to top it all off. An almost completely black set allows for the bright colour-blocked costumes of the characters to really pop on stage. I don’t find the decision to put large furniture stage centre particularly inspiring, but I suppose it works for this production.
For the most part, the actors are solid and the ensemble plays well off each other. Paul Rainville, who is getting rave reviews across the board, finds a great balance between dark humour and poignancy (not to mention world weariness and aggression) as George and delivers a most stellar performance. Rachel Eugster, playing Martha, has a number of great moments particularly with Rainville though occasionally her character feels a bit overly pronounced. As biology professor Nick, Cory Thibert really holds his own on stage with such admired artists like Rainville and Eugster, though I feel as though this is a character type he has become more than familiar with. Though I didn’t feel any chemistry between Thibert and co-star Grace Gordon, who plays Nick’s young sickly wife Honey, I am willing to concede that perhaps this is the point.
What I find most interesting about this production is the relationship it stages and how it ultimately crumbles under a series of games Martha and George play to both amuse and hurt one another. Even further the decision to “invite” other individuals into their games allows for the stakes to be raised continually and at greater costs. The amount of intellectual and emotional warfare that takes place in this show is almost astonishing and, ultimately, we see how the battling couple pays the price for the careless narratives they end up weaving. Admittedly, it is difficult to peel your eyes from the stage because, as the spectator, you are constantly in suspense thinking, “what could they possibly do to each other next?”
This is why it is so unfortunate that the seating seems so ill-suited for longer running shows. Even with two well-timed intermissions, I found it hard to get comfortable, as it were, and got especially antsy in the final act. To be sure, this is not the fault of the production company and more so just an open complaint to the community. Thankfully, the Gladstone helps combat this by allowing you to bring your drinks into the theatre with you- and I would recommend checking out their specialty cocktail menu!
Overall, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a satisfactory production if not a little on the safe side. It’s a nice feeling to finally check this classic off of my list of ‘things to see’ and in my opinion Bear and Co’s ensemble does Albee justice. The only question remains: who’s afraid of a big long play?