There’s George, and there’s Martha.
But no one ever says that.
References are always to the unit of George and Martha, who have the rare distinction of existing, even when reality dictates otherwise.
A false illusion? Maybe not.
For there are few characters in theatrical history whose power extends beyond the stage. The power of Edward Albee’s writing not only brought them to life when Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?? debuted on Oct. 13, 1962, in Broadway’s Billy Rose Theatre but established them as a part of the American lexicon.
Mention George and Martha to many people, and definitions begin forming.
Volatile, passionate, intense, unmerciful, funny. Entity.
“But there is love, too,” director Keith Dixon said. “This is a love story. As the saying goes, there is a fine line between love and hate, and you discover here that the opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s indifference. There is passion in both love and hate, and one would rather have the other hate him or her than not to care.”
It’s part of what fuels the passion between George and Martha. It’s not that one doesn’t care about the other, it’s about constantly making the other care.
This empowers George and Martha even more in an age where people expose their every thought on Twitter. George and Martha lure you in, then hold you hostage with conversation. Real conversation.
And when you want to leave, you can’t.
Because they’ve made you care.
“A lot of people have asked us if we are going to give the play a contemporary setting, but we could never do that,” Dixon said. “It would never work. Things are different these days. Nick and Honey would just leave. But they wouldn’t back then.”
Then again, could a modern day Nick and Honey free themselves from the clutches of a never-changing George and Martha?
Baton Rouge Little Theater’s audiences will have to decide for themselves when the play opens Friday, Jan.18. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?? is the third in the theater’s 2012-13 Season of Story & Song.
Dixon is also the theater’s managing artistic director. Dixon first directed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?? 10 years ago while working with the Murfreesboro Ensemble Theatre in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
“I knew it was a play that I would want to direct again, and I would want to direct it about every 10 years,” Dixon said. “In that time, I would grow, and I would bring to it 10 years of experience.”
Yet in that time, the power wielded by George and Martha remains the same. Experience may provide a better understanding of George and Martha, but in the end, it’s George and Martha who conquer.
They always seem to have a better reading of everyone. They know how to get into your head.
And they know how to devour.
“I compare their relationship to a ball of yarn,” Dixon said. “Think about the yarn when you first buy it. It’s neatly rolled, but think about how it looks when it’s rolled back up after it’s unraveled by a kitten. That’s George and Martha. Their life is this knotted ball of yarn, and if they’re going to continue, they’re either going to have to un-knot it or cut their losses.”
The course they take poses the question in the party jingle, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” which calls for an even greater realization.
“Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf means who’s afraid of the big bad wolf,” Edward Albee once said. “Who’s afraid of living life without false illusions?”
Albee’s quote appeared in William Flanagan’s 1966 Paris Review article “The Art of Theater No. 4: Edward Albee.” The playwright said he saw the question “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” scrawled on a piece of soap one night while out having a beer.
“When I started to write the play, it cropped up in my mind again,” he said. “And it did strike me as being a rather typical, university intellectual joke.”
And it’s at a university where the play opens. Well, it specifically opens in the living room of the house where George and Martha live on campus.
George is a history professor; Martha is daughter of the university president.
Their living room illustrates the chaos of the ball of Dixon’s ball of yarn analogy. Books on shelves would make sense, each offering its own brand of information.
But piled as they are in this residence, their stories mix in no certain order. They are bits and pieces hitting you from all directions, telling a portion of a story here and another there.
And it’s into this mess where Martha has invited new biology professor Nick and his wife Honey for a visit. At 2 a.m.
The two couples have just left a faculty gathering, and Nick certainly doesn’t want to disappoint the university president’s daughter.
George and Martha drink and engage in relentless, scathing verbal and sometimes physical abuse in front of Nick and Honey, who are simultaneously fascinated and embarrassed. And though the evening offers them two clear points of exit, they stay.
“Nick could have left twice, but he doesn’t,” Dixon said. “But I don’t see anyone doing that today. The university politics wouldn’t be the same; pleasing the university president wouldn’t be the same. People just wouldn’t stay around for this.”
“This,” being when George and Martha turn their abuse toward Nick and Honey.
It’s all a fine web, really. There are times when George and Martha are on the same side, times when they’re totally at odds with one another, times when they try to ally with Nick and Honey and times when they join forces against the young couple.
It’s all a game, and those watching know that George and Martha control it.
“And George and Martha need an audience for this to play out,” Dixon said. “I’m not talking about the audience in the theater but the audience they have in Nick and Honey. What makes this story work is the events that transpire in the play. They have to happen with an audience, and the audience has to be in the living room for this game.”
The game gets ugly fast.
“George is a master wordsmith,” Dixon said. “He knows how to use words to trap you.”
And Martha serves as both muse and tormentor. George loves her, and Martha hates him for it. Yet she loves him.
“But she can’t forgive him for loving her,” Dixon said. “She can’t forgive him for just settling to love her. So she punishes him for it, and she never stops punishing him. It’s the idea of how we hurt the ones we love the most.”
Dixon paused, then smiled as if the next thing he would say will be unbelievable. But it isn’t. “It’s a love story,” he said. “It’s twisted and dysfunctional, but it’s a love story between George and Martha.”
This may be a little difficult to grasp when Celeste Angelle Veillon walks into the living room at the beginning of the first act and proclaims it a dump.
She plays Martha in this production, and Bill Martin as George doesn’t react much.
He’s tired from the party, busy making Martha a drink, ready for sleep. Then Martha announces that they are expecting guests, the new math professor, played by Tyler Grezaffi, and the professor’s wife, played by Beth Yunek.
Of course, Martha has it wrong. The professor teaches biology, a subject on which George pounces when the two women venture upstairs.
Auditions for this cast were some of the most difficult for Dixon since taking the job at Baton Rouge Little Theater in 2004. Some 25 people showed up, each bringing his or her interpretation of the roles, and each being capable of playing the parts.
“My question was, ‘What kind of Virginia Woolf do I want?,’” Dixon said. “I would have been happy with any of the actors, but I had to think about how I wanted to present the story.”
But in the end, was it really Dixon’s decision? Do Martin and Veillon really have a say?
George and Martha are watching, after all, and they have a way of taking over. It is their story, after all.
And it’s all about truth and illusion.
“It’s about the process of a relationship, and they’ve been playing this game for 20 years,” Dixon said. “The process gives them a chance to play with each other, and it gives them a chance to keep telling lies to keep from hurting each other. Look at the title of Act One. It’s called ‘Fun and Games.’”
Act Two is called, “Walpurgisnacht,” which is the name of a traditional spring festival in parts of north and central Europe. Finally, there’s Act Three, “The Exorcism,” which indicates that something big will happen.
George and Martha share a secret, one that can make or break their relationship. The secret proves to be the key to the course they take.
Do they unravel the knots or cut their losses?
Don’t cheat by renting the 1966 film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, though that version is good. Go to Baton Rouge Little Theater.
Where the answer lies only in George and Martha.
Cast: Celeste Angelle Veillon, Martha; Bill Martin, George; Bess Yunek, Honey; Tyler Grezaffi, Nick.
Director: Keith Dixon