By C. S. Gilbert
There are those who believe that Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" is the finest American drama of the 20th century. It is not an easy play -- not for the cast or director or even the audience.
It is thus brave, if not foolhardy, to attempt a local production so lofty and challenging. But challenging and edgy is the stated raison d'être of Theatre XP's Key West's Summer Stage, now beginning in its third season at the Red Barn -- and folks, they are not kidding. There is much theatrical -- in this one case, cinema -- history referenced in this play, beginning with Bette Davis' famous line "What a Dump!" from the movie that Martha cannot figure out. It triggers very early the tension between main characters George and Martha, flawlessly, terrifyingly and ultimately heartrendingly played by Summer Stage/Theatre XP guru Bob Bowersox and longtime local hidden treasure Connie Hurst.
Previously Hurst's major contributions to local theater (among a number of roles) have been as a stand-out Bloody Mary in the late Island Opera's "South Pacific" at Tennessee Williams and -- rather more significantly -- as co-founder of the short-lived but critically and generatively successful People's Theater of Key West, which has evolved into the continually innovative and interesting Key West Fringe.
Equally wonderful are two actors quite new to Key West, Matt Hollis Hulsey and Susannah Wells, as the late-night, post faculty soiree nightcap guests, Honey and Nick, who complete the "Virginia Woolf" cast. There were moments in both of their performances that felt eerily as if it were total possession by the character, which is probably the highest praise one can offer an actor.
Director Rebecca Tomlinson -- she of multiple local theatrical and administrative accomplishments -- rises to new heights with this breath-taking show. While Albee's script indeed leads the theatrical experience, movement/blocking, delivery and nuance bring the show home; for these, director and actors are all due high praise.
First produced on Broadway to immense acclaim in 1962 (and followed by the 1966 movie and an award-winning New York revival last year), there is the accurate feel of an historical account to the show, which is officially set in a home on the campus of a small New England college in the fifties -- for example, the phonograph records on Bowersox's fine retro set. He is Summer Stage's executive producer via Theatre XP but also serves in much of the work of the production staff.
For any of us familiar with the groves -- often dense and twisted -- of academe, the secondary emotions of the play are familiar if not noble. (Aside: your critic -- full disclosure -- is a recovering college professor, circa 1960s-1980s, and there's a dreadful old joke that asks, "Why are academic politics so vicious?" "Because there's so little at stake.")
The primary focus of the show, of course, is relationships, and the work is searing, often funny, sometimes shocking, always interesting. Human psychology hasn't changed much since the 1950s. There was always the rumor that Albee, who is gay, was really depicting homosexual rather than heterosexual relationships. Maybe. Probably, even. But that's truly irrelevant to the depiction of behavior among people who once likely loved each other -- in their twisted way, still do -- and are inextricably connected either way. Alcohol rarely contributes positively to human interactions, but here it undeniably strips off pretense and lays bare the unvarnished truth, no matter how cruel.
Technical matters on the show are fine; experienced stage manager Annie Miners serves noble double duty as assistant director for all shows, the program noted. We still think stage managing is the toughest job of all --particularly because, if it is well done, no one will notice. Miners does it very well.
If you care about Amer-ican theater, have the courage to see relationships brilliantly stripped bare, and are up for a powerful evening of theater, do not miss this show.
Looking ahead: Last Monday, Bowersox presented a reading of his new play, "Moment of Grace," which will be produced at the Red Barn Nov. 5-23. It is funny, surprising and heart-filling. I recommend it.