The star of the current ‘Virginia Woolf’ revival opens up about the role of Martha, Edward Albee, and eating
Many are familiar with Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, one of the most cutting seminal works of modern theatre. It has been a mainstay of dramatic study since it debuted, with many a performer cutting his or teeth on the playwright’s sharply-fanged roles, some to better success than others. But the current Woolf revival, imported from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and directed by Pam MacKinnon, does just what the term implies, breathing new life and insight into this warhorse of a play.
Much of the credit goes to the quartet bringing these storied characters to life: Carrie Coon and Madison Dirks are perfectly matched as Honey and Nick, while Tracy Letts’ George turns the tables on Amy Morton’s Martha as we’ve never seen it before. It’s a reversal that sheds new light on the relationship between these warriors of words. But Martha gives as good as she gets, and Morton’s performance adds credibility to the character in ways never before seen. Her Martha likes entertaining, and loves holding court over new people. A Woolf production has never made it clearer as to just why Nick and Honey don’t just go home from the party that precedes the play’s action and instead enter George and Martha’s den of depravity – or why they find it so hard to leave.
“We had a lot of discussions about why they haven’t left,” Morton explained. “It always kept us from getting too insane. They have their reasons for staying, partly having to do with who [Martha’s] father is. Nick’s ambition is there, but George and Martha also keep these people in the room. Their fighting is too interesting for them to leave.”
And how. Morton acknowledges, like everyone, a familiarity with the both the role of Martha and the play itself. “I saw the movie on TV when I was a kid, maybe ten or eleven, watching it with my dad,” she recalls. “I was really enthralled and really confused. I thought, ‘Why are these grownups so mad at each other?’”
Subsequent study of the play, however, brought greater enlightenment Morton’s way. “I think she is incredibly sad and smart and witty, probably just a riot to be around,” she says. And she understands why a seething Martha has gone to seed. “I think her spirit in her early years was very intuitive, very gutsy, very earthy. If she was around today, she would be at the top of some career. But that wasn’t what women did back then for the most part.
“That’s the frustration of her life,” Morton continues. “She’s living life through her husband, and her ambition was large but his was not. That’s where a lot of her pain comes from, her thwarted ambition. If you can’t have kids or a career, Jesus!”
But a lot of the reason why this production shines – and it is scintillating – is the interplay between longtime friends and colleagues Letts and Morton. The two Chicago-based performers may be best known for their collaboration on the mammothly successful awards baiter August: Osage County – he wrote and had a featured role, she took on perhaps the show’s most demanding leading role – but they go way back. “Tracy and I have worked together for so long, I think this is the fifth or sixth time we’ve been married,” Morton jokes. “We’re so familiar with each other, which helped us make sure the baseline in this play was of a relationship about love. This is a couple who, underneath it all, all the vitriol, love each other very deeply.”
Morton and Letts’ understanding of the show – which Morton describes as “seriously deep writing” – comes from a long time of attachment to the play. Morton herself directed it nearly a decade ago at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, and the production ran at Steppenwolf and Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage. Playwright Albee came to Chicago during the rehearsal phase.
“He talked about the play,” she says, “which was illuminating, it was great. He watched some scenes and had some discussions with Pam. Some were more dramaturgical, and some were ‘This is how I see George and Martha.’”
And what was it like running the show in front of its creator? “Absolutely intimidating,” she acknowledges. “I don’t know anyone who would say he watched us and were perfectly fine; you’d need nerves of steel. But it was also very exciting.”
Morton confirms that the role of Martha is definitely a workout. “I don’t do much during the day because I am constantly conserving energy. I kind of lay low, I sleep a lot, I eat a lot, I basically live like a monk.” And she acknowledges being homesick for Chicago while Woolf continues its open-ended Broadway run. “I miss my house and my friends and my family,” she admits, which includes her husband Rob Milburn, who did sound design for Woolf but spends most of his time in Chicago. “I’m sequestered by the show. But I am also really busy and I love New York and I have friends here. And I treat myself on Sundays with a great massage and go someplace fabulous for dinner. I’m always asking people ‘Where should I go?’”
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is running at the Booth theatre. More information can be found at virginiawoolfbroadway.com.
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