Playwright Edward Albee gives audiences both barrels at Clark Street Playhouse this month, as the theater hosts two different Albee plays in productions by the Keegan Theatre and Fountainhead Theatre companies.
Keegan presents Albee’s best known play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, the 1962 Tony Award winner for best play and the basis for the 1966 motion picture starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. “Virginia Woolf” has been produced by professional and community theaters ever since.
This production actually began with a tour of Ireland this summer, when Keegan took it to nine different theaters around the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Arlington-based theater company has developed a reputation in Ireland for its productions of emotionally searing plays by American playwrights.
In 1999 they performed Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the Town Hall Theatre in Galway. They were asked back the next year and performed Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” at that theater and one other, becoming the first professional American theater company ever to tour the west of Ireland. Since then their repertoire has grown, as has their itinerary: each year’s tour has had more stops than the one before.
This year it was “Virginia Woolf,” a play D.C. native Albee, and a new director was at the helm. Lee Mikeska Gardner is the producing director at the Washington Shakespeare Company and has directed productions at many local theaters.
Gardner directs a cast of Keegan regulars in Albee’s portrait of a married couple so disillusioned by their lives together they belittle each other, stretching the bonds of affection almost to the breaking point. In any play about less-than-likable people, the key is to give at least a glimpse of what they must have been before they soured, and some feeling for the aspirations left unfulfilled.
Linda High is Martha, the caustic wife and Mark Rhea is George, her disappointing and disappointed husband. Under Gardner’s direction, these two, despite their repulsive behavior and mutual midlife crises, are actually sympathetic characters. There is just enough glimmer of what might have been, and what they expected to happen, to let the audience feel an all-too-human reaction of, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
The production is enhanced by supporting performances by Carlos Bustamente and Susan Marie Rhea. She performed many times with Keegan theater under her maiden name, Susan Grevengoed, until she and Mark Rhea took advantage of the tour’s Irish schedule to get married in the Emerald Isle and turned the tour into a honeymoon.
With Keegan’s “Virginia Woolf” on stage half the week, Keegan co-produced another Albee play with Fountainhead Theatre, “A Delicate Balance,” allowing full use of the playhouse throughout the week.
“Balance,” a Pulitzer Prize winner for Albee, is somewhat more diffuse in its structure, and its characters are unpleasant for more ambiguous reasons, making it a major challenge for cast and a director.
The cast of the Fountainhead production, under director Kerri Rambow, does not succeed as thoroughly as could be hoped, but individually they put on some satisfying performances.
Most satisfying is Charlotte Akin as a heavy-drinking live-in in-law. But, then in this play, everyone is drinking heavily. Jim Jorgensen is also marvelous to watch as his character goes through a wide variety of distresses.
Albee is a playwright whose work gives audiences a great deal to ponder. The opportunity to see two of his best known plays a few nights or days apart is unusual and the two theater companies make it all the more attractive by offering special prices.
<i>Brad Hathaway is the editor/reviewer for <a href="http://www.PotomacStages.com">Potomac Stages</a>, a website and email service covering theater in Washington, Maryland and Virginia. He can be reached by e-mail at <a href="mailto:Brad@PotomacStages.com">Brad@PotomacStages.com</a>.</i>