The Guthrie Theater production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? closes April 1. Previews began Feb. 23, and the show opened March 2. The cast includes theatre, film and television star Patrick Stewart (George) and Tony and Academy Award-winning actress Mercedes Ruehl (Martha), as well as Bill McCallum (Nick) and Carrie Preston (Honey).
Albee’s savage portrait of a marriage centers on the hostile games played by the leading couple, George and Martha. The full spectrum of the couple’s destructive relationship is explored, beginning with a social visit which devolves into a savage donnybrook over the course of a single evening. [A new work by Albee, The Play About the Baby, which some have speculated in a sequel of sorts to Woolf (though Albee denies it categorically), recently opened to rave reviews Off-Broadway. The Guthrie production reportedly has its eye on a transfer to New York City.]
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, received its Broadway premiere on October 13, 1961, at New York’s Billy Rose Theater. Directed by Alan Schneider, that Tony and Drama Critics Circle-winning production starred Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen as the embattled George and Martha. George Grizzard and Melinda Dillon played the younger couple. [Hagen briefly reprised the role she originated in a scene performed for the 2001 "Nothing Like a Dame benefit at the Martin Beck Theatre on March 12.]
As reported, Albee infamously failed to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama because of the objections of one Pulitzer trustee over the play’s content. Former Pulitzer drama advisors John Gassner and John Mason Brown issued public resignations over the issue.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is directed by David Esbjornson, who also directed Patrick Stewart in last season’s Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s The Ride Down Mt. Morgan. Mercedes Ruehl won a Tony Award for her performance in Lost In Yonkers. Before that, she was seen on stage in Other People's Money, for which she received the Clarence Derwent Award. She appeared both on and Off-Broadway in Herb Gardner's I'm Not Rappaport.
On Jan. 21, during a "Behind the Scenes" gathering at Guthrie attended by a thousand of the theatre's subscribers, Patrick Stewart linked his destiny as an actor to the current production and an old invitation from the Guthrie's namesake. "In 1965, Tyrone Guthrie was coming to Bristol (England) to direct a production of Measure for Measure with the Bristol Old Vic Company," Stewart recalled. "I had been in the company for almost two years — playing Shylock, other Shakespeare leads , Astrov in Cherry Orchard, and there was one role in Measure for Measure, Angelo, that I had always wanted to play since I was a teenager. I fully expected that I would be offered this role for this Tyrone Guthrie production. I'm sure you can imagine how exciting it was in a provincial English playhouse to have such a titan of the theater like Guthrie. Well, he came—and he didn't want me. He actually cast my best friend. It was a bitter blow. I was wounded and upset and, in fact, actually left the company to join the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company), so, it had a happy ending. But Guthrie met with me because he had heard of my disappointment. He consoled me by saying, 'However, I would like to think that you will come and work at my theater in Minneapolis very, very soon.' Here I am."
Edward Albee is the author of The Zoo Story, The Death of Bessie Smith, The Sandbox, Tiny Alice, A Delicate Balance, Seascape, Three Tall Women, The Lorca Play and Fragments. Albee’s most recent work, The Play About the Baby, had its premiere in New York in mid January. Esbjornson directed.
Tickets range from $16-$42. The Guthrie Theatre is located at 725 Vineland Place in Minneapolis. For tickets and information call the box office at (612) 377-2224 or in Greater Minnesota call toll free at (877) 44 -STAGE. Tickets may be purchased online at www.guthrietheater.org
—By Murdoch McBride