Don’t be afraid of ‘Woolf’ 

Audiences who first experienced "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" by way of the famous 1966 film version may come away from the current Best of Broadway production thinking they’ve seen an entirely different show.

Anthony Page’s 2005 staging of Edward Albee’s 1962 play, which opened Friday at the Golden Gate Theatre after runs in Boston, New York and London, represents a significant departure from the brawling physicality portrayed by Liz Taylor and Richard Burton in the film.

Which is not to say that this production, starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin, doesn’t pack a punch. Friday’s three-hour opening yielded an electrifying evening in the theater, but its impact derived more from Albee’s incisive characterization, mordant wit and poetic use of language than any imposed theatrical concept. The result is a production that reveals the heart of the play in every particular.

"Virginia Woolf" takes place in a small New England college town. George is an aging, unambitious history professor, and Martha — the college president’s daughter — is his disappointed wife: "George," she explains early in the play, "is in the history department, as opposed to being the history department." For his part, George is appalled by Martha’s brash, boozing behavior; their contempt for each other is a festering sore, and with another couple — Nick, an up-and-coming biology professor, and Honey, his girlish wife — as bewildered observers and unwitting participants, George and Martha embark on an excoriating, all-night marital battle, laying waste to each other and anyone else who gets in their way.

The cast is fabulous. Turner, exuding body heat and using her trademark whiskey voice to bray, cackle, baby-talk and purr, creates a complex Martha made of equal parts vulgar bravado, unchecked rage and wounded vulnerability; Irwin, who won a Tony Award for his performance in the production’s Broadway run, layers a benign, mild-mannered exterior over George’s murderous razor edge. As Nick, David Furr is an arrogant, grinning golden boy with a nasty streak. Kathleen Early makes Honey aptly prim and clueless.

"Virginia Woolf" is a serious play, but it’s easy to forget how funny it is (the film version’s biggest mistake was the way it let histrionics obscure the play’s comic aspects.) In scene after scene, Albee’s wicked sense of humor cuts through the tension; at Friday’s opening, waves of laughter rolled through the audience.

Page and his design team — John Lee Beatty (sets), Jane Greenwood (costumes) and Peter Kaczorowski (lighting) — adhere to Albee’s 1960 setting, but the playwright’s concerns — domestic conventions, academic pretensions, sexual repression and rampant self-delusion — still feel contemporary. Stripped to its essence, the harsh truths of "Virginia Woolf" shine through brilliantly by the end of this long night’s journey into day.

IF YOU GO

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ????

Presented by Best of Broadway

Where: Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; closes May 12

Tickets: $50 to $80

Contact: (415) 512-7770 or

www.ticketmaster.com

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Staff Report

Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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