Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of those unhappy campers that often leaves one dazed and stewing in moral decrepitude. And that's when it's done well.---
First of all, for those not familiar with the play, one thing bears mention going in: It has nothing to do with 20th century modernist writer Virginia Woolf. The name is a parody of the song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" from Disney's 1933 animated film Three Little Pigs. Albee, in an interview with with The Paris Review's William Flanagan and later anthologized in Philip C Kolin's Conversations with Edward Albee, claims he was in a New York City saloon, in the 1950s, in which "they had a big mirror on the downstairs bar…where people used to scrawl graffiti." One night, while he was having a beer, when he "saw Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror. When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again." Of course, Albee says, "who's afraid of Virginia Woolf means who's afraid of the big bad wolf…who's afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical university, intellectual joke."
The success of Albee's inside joke depends largely on the subject, but his point about false illusions is paramount to a healthy understanding of the play—things are not as they seem. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, at its most basic, the story of a university couple, George and Martha, who take advantage of a pair of younger house guests to pursue an all-night battle of wills. It's also a play about gender expectations, about marriage power differentials, about the dynamics and disappointments of modern relationships, about the secrets people keep from each other.
The award-winning 1966 film adaptation of the play starred real-life married couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as Martha and George. This latest Santa Fe production also features a real-life couple, albeit in different roles: Tony Award-nominated actress Joanne Camp as Martha and Shepard Sobel directing. Victor Talmadge fills the part of George, while Santa Fe University of Art and Design theater students Jonathan Barcellos and Anne Roser play Nick and Honey, respectively. Camp and Sobel recently relocated to Albuquerque following successful theater careers in New York City, and while Talmadge's performance brings a dry solidarity to the play, and the SFUAD students are on the ball every step of the way, Camp succeeds in stealing the show.
Her depiction of Martha as an impassioned, frustrated, yet loving and, possibly, slightly deranged middle-aged woman gives the whole production a sense of foreboding. She seems, at times, wholly incapable of containing her emotion, threatening to burst through her skin and strangle George (when, in fact, it is George who ultimately ends up trying to strangle her).
Roser's depiction of Honey as bubbly, drunk and oblivious is humorous and appropriate to the role, yet the flamboyance strongly juxtaposes the overall tone of the play. This is no doubt Albee's intention with the character, but Honey occasionally comes off more as plucky comic relief than as a fully formed character, a condition made more problematic by the fact that much of Nick's plot development is driven by concern for her well-being.
Overall, strong performances abound. Production values are high, with the elaborate set design taking full advantage of the Greer Garson Theatre's expansive stage. Flaws in the play itself—such as George's lengthy Latin under-dialogue in the last act, or Nick's thin-fourth-wall moment of realization during which he might as well turn to the audience and say, "Hey, this is what's going on"—break the illusion, but they're not the fault of the production, and the cast and crew do an excellent job of building up the elephant in the room for the final moment of clarity.