College theater students frequently play characters older than they are because, let's face it, not every play is This Is Our Youth. Depending on the role and performance style, playing a part that's 20, 30 or even 50 years older presents its challenges. With certain characters, it's not just about slapping on some aging makeup and a touch of gray. Maturity and experience go a long way.
Think of it in terms of a thirtysomething actor playing a character that's 30 to 40 years older in a community theater production, let's say. For Scrooge? Maybe. It has happened with character actors, and been sufficient. King Lear? Let's not think about that.
So it's not irrational to approach viewing a college production of Edward Albee's masterpiece Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with skepticism. Sure, Nick and Honey can be played by actors in their early 20s, if they are physically right for the part. But George and Martha, him being 46 and her being, as he repeatedly reminds her in the play, six years older? Quite the challenge, mostly because of experience factor.
Which is why the University of North Texas' current production of Woolf is a welcome surprise.
For one, director Andrew B. Harris is more than an Albee aficionado—he has worked with the man many consider America's greatest living playwright. He produced Albee Directs Albee in New York, and compiled and directed Albee's Women in Fort Worth in the 1990s, and has written essays about Albee's work for academic journals. He clearly understands Albee and his experience shows in this production.
You may have seen Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? done better, but there's a level of commitment in this UNT production that goes beyond what you typically see in nonprofessional theater. For educational theater, it's pretty remarkable. What an acting lesson for the students, and what an introduction to anyone who hasn't read the play or seen a production of it (or the movie).
It's a big help that Brian Hill, who plays George, is indeed in his 40s. Of the famously venomous married couple driving the play, George, a history professor at a small New England college, is in the end, more malicious than his cackling wife, Martha (Sarah Quiroz, who's in her 20s). The character of George is probably tougher for a twentysomething to pull off than Martha is. She is the one who starts the late-night/early-morning post-party drinking games, feeling invincible because her "daddy" (as she calls him) is the president of said college. But George is the one who finishes them, to the detriment of their soon-to-be-gotten guests, studly biology professor Nick (Ben Darling) and his ditzy, fragile wife Honey (Kerry Goldman).
Turns out, George is sick of being, as Martha teases, "Georgie Porgie Put-Upon Pie." As Virginia Woolf requires serious emotional stamina for the actors and audience, Hill paces himself carefully, and the payoff for us is powerfully devastating. Quiroz, in a black wig and not looking the character's age, and her Martha is a little more outwardly vicious than most. But she's scary, magnetic, sexy and revolting—all important traits. It's important that the malice of George and Martha is lyrical, as Albee's dialogue is. Also, despite their vicious games, it should be apparent that they can't live without each other. Both of those elements are in place here.
Of the younger pair, Honey doesn't steal the show for once. Goldman, in an unconvincing wig, makes Honey goofier and more drunk than often seen, but it doesn't go over the line. Perhaps one of the reasons she doesn't stand out as much is because in the script that UNT uses, which is Albee's 2005 "Definitive Edition," she gets a little less stage time. A second-act scene between George and Honey is cut entirely; the act ends with George in the chair, reading, without him mumbling about his plan to "kill the kid" before that happens in the third act. (Also, some of Albee's harsher language, which wasn't allowed when the show debuted on Broadway in 1962, is restored.)
Or, perhaps it's because Darling makes for such a believable Nick that Honey's pukey-cutesy shenanigans don't overshadow him. The scenes between George and Nick are some of the best in this staging, with palpable tension and one-upmanship on display.
All in all, the students here are to be commended for attacking such a challenging work with this kind of dedication. (Also, fine work by student set and costume designers Sara Imam and Kaori Imai, respectively.)
As Albee's play should be, this production is a visceral theatrical experience.
Below is a promo video for the production. Also, note that the performances at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6 and 2:30 p.m. Oct. 8 will feature a different cast.