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Tuesday January 31st

PlayMakers has a smash success with 'Virginia Woolf'

PlayMakers Repertory Company production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Credit: Jon Gardiner
Buy Photos PlayMakers Repertory Company production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Credit: Jon Gardiner

The promotional posters for PlayMakers Repertory Company’s latest production, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” bill the drama as a “dysfunctional family slugfest for the holidays.”

That’s close to the truth, but confining the work to the holiday season is a disservice.

See the show:

Time: 7:30 p.m. Tues. to Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. through Dec. 16
Location: Paul Green Theatre

5 out of 5 stars

PlayMakers’ rendition of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is the type of well-crafted, finely-tuned ensemble piece that any theater company would kill to have on its calendar, period.

With brilliant performances from PlayMakers regulars Julie Fishell and Ray Dooley plus surprising and rewarding turns by two of UNC’s Masters in Fine Arts candidates, the work is a case study in theatrical excellence.

Edward Albee’s 1962 drama, a carefully paced boiler of a farce, centers around an emotionally destructive older couple and their young and unsuspecting evening guests.

Dooley and Fishell play George and Martha, an unhappily married couple living in a New England college town and regretting their lives of failure and forgotten promise.

After a faculty party, George and Martha play host to new professor Nick and his wife Honey, and proceed to drag the pair through a raucous evening of verbal jousting and withering emotional abuse.
The lies and secrets that play out through the evening lend the play a vague sense of dread.

But it is not for the plot that this play deserves attention.
Rather, it is for the powerful way the four actors rip each other apart with poise and an almost gleeful vitriol.

Dooley plays George as falsely meek, using soft tones and a slow build to mask his ultimate dominance of the bitter party’s social dynamic.

His second act revenge game is childish and simple, lending the character an unsettling air.

As Martha, Fishell is manic to a fault, shifting volume levels and sloshing her way about the beautiful and skewed library set with a scary efficiency.

When the pair share the stage, it is almost impossible to turn away — no matter how ugly and mean their insults become.

Their younger counterparts, MFA candidates Brett Bolton and Katie Paxton, more than hold their own.

Paxton in particular — who has often struggled to find her voice on the PlayMakers stage — brings a delightful and devastating naivete to Honey, toying with her character’s false simplicity as an artful cover for the unhappy woman within.

She is equally matched by Bolton, who finds the brash Nick’s snivelling cruelty with ease.

This is not the kind of heartwarming charmer that PlayMakers tends to stage at the end of the calendar year.

Rather, it is a modern masterwork, pointedly probing at the false lives we construct to help mask the hurt within.

And though the four actors don’t make the audience care for them at the end of the three-hour drama, it is impossible not to respect true professionals at the artistic peak of their craft.

“It’ll be better,” George tells Martha at the very end of the painful third act.

With a play this good — the best that the company has put on in several seasons ­— it would be hard to find anything to top it.

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