Thunder River brings ‘Virginia Woolf’ to Carbondale
October 1, 2009
CARBONDALE – The curse words, the idea of wife-swapping, peeling away the faade of buttoned-down 1950s America – none of this was exactly unheard of when Edward Albee debuted his play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in 1962. Through the 1950s the Beat writers had addressed, in a way that was as explicit as Albee’s, sexuality and the notion that the normality and homogeneity of the Eisenhower era was a flimsy construct waiting to be exposed.But while the Beats worked in poetry, appeared in small coffeehouses in San Francisco and New York, and, even in their biggest moments – Kerouac’s “On the Road,” Ginsberg’s “Howl,” William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” – just scratched at mainstream awareness, Albee presented his story on one of America’s most widely accessed stages. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” opened 47 years ago on Broadway, and theater audiences accustomed to upbeat musicals and tame dramas were in for a taste of counter-culture.”Most people didn’t read poetry,” Lon Winston, artistic director of Carbondale’s Thunder River Theatre Company, said. “The people who went to see ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ on Broadway in 1962, and then saw the  movie – they weren’t sitting at home reading the Beat poets. But you put Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in a movie back then, and everyone went to see it.”What they saw was, at the time, explosive material. The play featured two married couples, both associated with a prominent college nearby, spending a night drinking, flirting and relentlessly clawing into one another’s weak spots. It was a far cry from “How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying,” that year’s blockbuster musical.”It was a huge breakthrough,” Winston said. “Look what happened immediately following. Look what happened to music, to politics, in 1965, ’66. The country was turned upside down. And a lot of that is because of the power of art.”Thunder River Theatre is in the middle of its production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with Winston directing, and a cast of Valerie Haugen, Jeff Carlson, Charlie DeFord and Holly Freeman. Winston is well aware that the play has no hope of delivering the jolt it did nearly a half-century ago. But he believes it remains relevant.”We were not as pristine as we wanted to present to the world,” he said. “That’s relevant today. We pontificate on one hand, we’re trying to portray a belief system. And we betray ourselves to the world. It gets blown up in our faces.”Even without speaking to contemporary politics, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” can be taken as a milepost in theater. Winston says that many prominent playwrights who came after Albee – David Mamet, Wendy Wasserstein, Sam Shepard, John Guare – have all pointed to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” as an influence.”They all said, We owe the freedom of where we can go as writers to Edward Albee. We don’t have to write that pretty play,” said Winston, noting that, in his freshman year, in 1964, at the University of Florida, Albee’s plays were part of the curriculum.To Winston, perhaps the biggest difference in seeing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” when it premiered, and now, is that these days it’s nearly impossible to blow the lid off of anything. Around-the-clock exposs have made it impossible for any boiling pot to create a good head of steam that is hidden from public view.”Today life is exposed,” he said. “In a world of Internet, it’s hard to play a life of illusion. Everyone is cynical; everyone knows what is going on. The illusions we have today don’t last very long.”Winston adds that one segment of the audience for Thunder River’s version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” might still have a surprise in store. Those who know only director Mike Nichols’ 1966 film will see a stage version that is funnier, more claustrophobic – and with less shock value.”That’s not what Albee was trying to do. He thought his political commentary didn’t make it into the movie,” Winston said of the film’s caustic take on relationships. “What he wanted to express in the play, coming off the Eisenhower years and ‘Leave It to Beaver’ and ‘Father Knows Best,’ is we created this illusion of perfection in this country, that everything was sweet, hopeful. He was saying that’s just not the way it is. The family watched ‘Father Knows Best’ and then turned off the TV and who knows what happened?”firstname.lastname@example.org
The Thunder River Theatre Company presents “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 3-4, and Thursday through Saturday, Oct. 8-10, at 7:30 p.m. There will also be a Sunday, Oct. 4, performance at 2 p.m. All performances take place at the Thunder River Theatre in Carbondale.