Under the direction of Tony nominee Pam MacKinnon, Letts and Morton brought fresh perspective to the characters of George and Martha in Albee's riotous and devastating drama.
Playbill.com spoke with Letts the day following Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'s Tony nomination news:
People have a lot of expectations of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – not only of how the roles perhaps should be played, but also about the kind of experience they are going to have at the theatre. Was that lingering in the back of your mind when you began rehearsals?
Tracy Letts: It's intimidating. It's such an iconic play and it's an important play. It's also a difficult role, a famously difficult role, so yes it's pretty intimidating, but you open the script up to page one and you say, "Who is this guy and what does he want?" And before you know it, you're working on it just like you're working on a brand-new play. Hopefully you can leave all that other stuff where it belongs outside the rehearsal room and you can just roll up your sleeves and get to work.
In some ways this production is a departure from the sort of epic battle-type staging of Virginia Woolf that audiences have seen. Personally, it was the first time I felt that these characters gave me a private glimpse into the lives of people I could actually know. Was that an idea that guided you during rehearsals? TL: We never set out to – I don't think it was part of our conversation, "Oh this has been done this way in the past and now we're going to do it this way." I think we were always just trying to figure out who they were and what they wanted, and why they were there and what they were willing to do to get what they wanted. Those kind of questions. I think as a result of doing that, we've probably actually avoided some of the things that we associate with the play now—as a result of the film. You know these things, over time, they get barnacles on them and you sort of have to scrape them off. I think the way you do that is not by focusing on scraping them off, it's by simply returning to the roots of what we do as artists and trying to figure out how to do the play.
The play's final moments were deeply moving. I suddenly saw a love story that I never saw before.
TL: We always believed it was a love story – I think that's the real reason for the endurance of the play. For all of the horror of it, there's a kernel of something positive, and hopeful, and loving at the center of it. I think these people love each other and they're fighting really hard for their marriage. So, of course, we're glad you were moved – we were moved, too. We hoped to communicate that to people – that these are real people in a real marriage in love with each other. Ultimately I think the play is very moving. But ultimately that's a testament to Mr. Albee's play. It's a great play.
Was this a role you'd been hungry to play?
TL: I think it's a role—I don't want to say destined, because I don't necessarily believe in that, but something about the trajectory I've been on as an actor did lead naturally and organically to playing this part. And to play it for a long time, different productions, hundreds of performances, and I was relieved finally to be able to say, "I'm done with it. I'm walking away from it." Because it's hard.
What's next for you? Did this make you want to tackle another acting role?
TL: I just finished a new play and had a reading of it in NY a couple weeks ago – just a very causal reading with friends to hear it out loud for the first time. You know, as soon as I finish acting in a play I always think, "Well, the easy thing to do now would be to write a play," and once I get through the process of putting this play up I'll think, "Oh if only I could get back on stage now." Amy Morton calls it crop rotation – I think there's something to that.