Saturday, January 28, 2023

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Brings Honesty and Raw Talent to the Stage

376“You are invited over for drinks at George and Martha’s. Nothing will ever be the same.”

So runs the tagline for the first collaborative production between Coronado’s Lamb’s Players Theatre and the Encinitas-based Intrepid Theatre Company. The play opened this past weekend at the Horton Grand Theatre in the Gaslamp District of San Diego and has just been extended through March 26. Brutal honesty, live-wire dialogue, pure talent, and masterful direction come together in this true masterpiece of classic American theater.

“This play is a fascinating psychological thriller,” said Intrepid Producing Artistic Director Christy Yael-Cox in a behind-the-scenes article. “It’s about figuring out where the truth lies, and to what extent people will go to hide it, manipulate it, or destroy it altogether.”

“Fasten your seat belts,” added actress Deborah Gilmour Smyth with a chuckle. “You’re in for a bumpy ride.”

Edward Albee’s groundbreaking play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was originally published in 1962. The play’s raw portrayal of a marriage on the rocks is almost too painful to watch, with insults hurled and private failures exposed for all to see and hear. At the start of the play, George, a professor at a small New England college, arrives home late after a faculty party with his wife Martha. The world-weary couple stumble through the front door with a burst of raucous laughter from the intoxicated Martha and sullen acceptance from George, following in her wake. To his dismay, George soon learns Martha has invited a younger couple over for drinks, despite the fact that it is almost 2 am.

Nick and Honey recently joined the college’s staff, and at first they are politely perturbed by the thick tension between George and Martha. Soon, though, everyone is twisted in a tangled web of mental games, ripping open secrets like raw wounds, as the bourbon and brandy flow and the clock ticks relentlessly towards dawn.

Robert Smyth, Ross Hellwig, Erin Petersen, and Deborah Gilmour Smyth. Photo credit: Daren Scott.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of the foundational pillars of the American theatre,” says Robert Smyth in an interview. “These are really complex people, and they’re each bringing really unique baggage. You take a director that can unpack that, a cast that can explore that, and then suddenly you begin to see why this piece was nominated… for the Pulitzer Prize.”

What makes this production so unique is that George and Martha are portrayed by a long-time married couple: Robert and Deborah Gilmour Smyth. The Smyths are Coronado residents, have been married for 31 years, and have acted and directed at Lamb’s Players Theatre for almost 30 years. They bring to the stage not only their exquisite talent as actors but also the familiarity of a married couple. Best of all, this production marks the first time the Smyths have been seen on stage together outside their Lamb’s Players home.

“It’s fun for us. We’ve done a lot of work together over the years,” says Robert Smyth in the same interview. “We’re honored to be able to play one of the quintessential couples. There’s a lot of us that is in each of the couples — but thankfully there is a lot that is different too!”

If the groans and chuckles around the theater were any indication, everyone in the audience could see themselves in George and Martha. The themes of marital love and respect, crippling loss, and career disappointment are painfully familiar to most of us. However, unlike in most of our daily interactions, there are no holds barred when George and Martha go at each other, and the three hours of their angry dialogue and word games are not for the faint of heart. It takes a talented set of actors to keep the audience engaged. Director Christy Yael-Cox has chosen her cast well.

“It has everything encapsulated within these three acts,” she says of the play. “It’s witty, it’s scandalous, it’s heartbreaking — you will laugh and you will cry. It will take your breath away.”

Ross Hellwig, Erin Petersen, Robert Smyth, and Deborah Gilmour Smyth. Photo credit: Daren Scott.

Yael-Cox also notes that there is much more going on here than dialogue. “I think this play, like most things in the world, is actually about love: new love that is shrouded in shame and secrets, and old love that has been battered, abused, and torn up into a million small pieces. Martha and George — symbols for so many larger ideas about this country and about humanity — are, to me, two people who love each other fiercely.”

Of course, the word “fiercely” can mean many different things when it relates to love and relationships, and George and Martha seem to try all extremes. In the hands of these skillful actors, we can all find pieces of ourselves. And, ultimately, that is the point.

“Ideally, a play should hold a mirror up to people,” said playwright Edward Albee in an interview with Charlie Rose. “Maybe someone should be asking some questions about your values or the way you think about things. Maybe you should come out of a theater with something having happened to you.”

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the Lamb’s Players website.

Becca Garber
Becca Garber
Becca is a Coronado local, military spouse, mother of three, and an ICU nurse on hiatus. In Coronado, you will find her at the playground with her kids, jogging to the beach, or searching the Coronado library for another good read.Have news to share? Send tips, story ideas or letters to the editor to: [email protected]