By Kimberly Rau
Gamm rings in 2024 with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and, no surprise, it’s a well-done think piece from start to finish.
Thoughtfully directed by Steve Kidd and populated with a powerhouse cast, Gamm’s take on Edward Albee’s three-act play is a poignant examination of relationships at their most precarious. When you strip away all illusion, what are you left with?
We start with George and Martha, the older academic couple well-ensconced at a New England university. He’s a history professor, she, the daughter of the president of the university. Martha, clearly under the influence after a long evening at an academic event, has invited new professor Nick and his wife, Honey, back to the house to welcome them. George is dubious from the start, and things only devolve from there.
Don’t be fooled: there’s a lot to unpack in this deceptively simple play about two relationships breaking down over the course of one boozy night. Both couples got married not for love, but for futures built on shaky pretenses. Moreover, Martha can’t seem to stop comparing George to her father, whom she has built up to godlike status in her mind, and Nick seems panicked about the fact that his entire life to this point seems to have been decided for him.
Add in alcohol, insecurity (take your pick – age, academic inferiority, the future), and the adage that nothing good happens after midnight, and you’re sitting on a powder keg.
And that brings us back to the aforementioned powerhouse cast.
Tony Estrella is the old-before-his time George, who teaches history and seems to derive most of his joy from taking pot shots at his wife, including hyperbolic jokes about her appearance. (At one point, he calls her a cyclops.) He seems more ashamed that his wife thinks he hasn’t amounted to anything than he is about not being higher up in the university’s echelons. Estrella handles the role with apparent ease, though it is no easy role. Like the play itself, each of these characters is only simple at first glance.
Pairing against him is Jeanine Kane as Martha. Kane, never one to shy away from an emotionally troubled character, takes Martha’s almost manic ups and downs in stride. Martha’s trainwreck of bad decisions, egged on by her husband’s apparent indifference, is as fascinating as it is horrible to watch thanks to Kane’s deft handling of the material.
Gunnar Manchester returns to Gamm’s stage as Nick, the standoffish academic wunderkind who got his master’s at 19 and will be teaching biology at the university. At first wary of getting involved in George and Martha’s squabbles, Nick eventually succumbs to the mood in the room (and too much alcohol), and finds himself the catalyst for some of the evening’s most explosive confrontations. This role is a more stoic one than we typically see Manchester play, and it’s a treat to watch.
Last but not least is Gabrielle McCauley as Honey, the young wife who’s eager to please and brag on her husband at every opportunity. As the evening wears on, however, we see Honey’s mask start to slip. She has moments of pure annoyance with her husband, and her delicate mannerisms are all but a memory by the time she passes out on the bathroom floor. We get the sense that Honey still has the most to learn about life, and the farthest to fall, and she starts that evening. McCauley does a beautiful job.
This is a long show, approximately 3 hours long with two intermissions, but there’s no fat to trim here. Every moment is well-considered and -played, and you wouldn’t want to miss any of them. The play doesn’t have a clearly stated moral, but instead gives you room to draw your own conclusions. This kind of trust in an audience doesn’t come around every day. You owe it to yourself to experience it before it closes.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” runs through Feb. 18 at the Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick. Tickets may be obtained at the box office, online at gammtheatre.org, or by calling 401.723.4266.