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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at PlayMakers Rep

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An odd, almost Zen-like rubric of the theater says it isn't acting if we know it's acting. Not successful acting, anyway. Audiences don't come to the theater to admire the clockwork or see how closely a technician simulates a human emotion. No, audiences come because they want to believe. Anything less is a disappointment. When we suddenly stop believing, well into a production's second hour, the entire evening is compromised.

Small wonder, then, that the most challenging of theatricals roles are compared to mountain climbing. It makes sense. One false move, anywhere, over that lengthy, extended range of human ideals, foibles and emotions, like Shakespeare's Lear, frequently results in one outcome: a fast—and (theatrically) fatal—trip down from the heights just ascended.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee's 1962 drama about grandmaster-level mind games among the academically impotent (and those who've learned to loathe them), fully demands similar caution. Its deceptively simple supporting roles are no stroll in the park, and its major roles pose a formidable challenge even to seasoned artists.

Unfortunately, in the last act of Albee's gauntlet of a play last Saturday night, I did not believe Julie Fishell's Martha as she reacted to the news of her son's death. Nor did I believe Ray Dooley's sudden "explosion" as George, at the end of an earlier scene. Both were an act, that night—as opposed to acting.

Other difficulties preceded these moments: exactly how drunk either of these characters were or weren't as the play progressed, for example, and the costuming and makeup choices that made George appear much older than a character six years younger than Martha.

Still, much of the night had savor. The strange mix of boozy near-commiseration and competition between George and Nick (Brett Bolton) had rewarding moments, and the same may be said for the more-than-momentary flashes of wary camaraderie that punctuated George and Martha's domestic hostilities. Katie Paxton's briefly bared fangs as Honey were a comic reward in the final act.

In the world of the play, tonight is not like any other night in George and Martha's house. Boundaries and agreements are broken between them. But director Wendy Goldberg's muted, almost Sartrean, denouement seems to mitigate all that has come before.

It's clear this battle will continue. It can't, however, if we're not still believing at the end. Dooley and Fishell, actors I have come to admire over the last two decades, didn't make it up the mountain on opening night. Still, anyone looking at their track record would wager that they'll get there before the end of the show's run.

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