Be afraid, be very afraid

Still looking for an antidote to Valentine’s Day? You could do worse than check out Asheville Community Theatre’s current production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

The play, which opened, ironically, on the official Day of Love, runs through March 2. Love, however, has precious little to do with Woolf, which chronicles both the alcoholic rages of an unhappily married couple and their unsuspecting guests, and the fears prompted by the uncertainties of the Cold War.

Indeed, most people suggest that ignoring the Cold War subtext greatly reduces the power of the play. I certainly found this to be the case as I watched the lead couple — aptly named George and Martha — make mincemeat of Nick (a reference to Nikita Khrushchev) and his sweet wife, Honey.

Nick and Honey get their licks in, too, and by the end of the play, everyone has been humiliated, humbled, frightened, aroused and revealed in various ways. (A thoughtfully designed set — lots of dark, exposed wood — enhances ACT’s production in subtle, profound ways.)

The Edward Albee drama, first produced on Broadway in 1962, went on to win a number of awards, and was adapted into a film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as George and Martha. Though this play, with its allusions to 1950s social mores and Cold War worries, is clearly a product of its time, it’s still well worth seeing today. ACT’s version is a tightly acted production directed by Bernie Hauserman and featuring four strong actors: Peter Tamm (George), Karen Tietze (Martha), Clete Fugate (Nick) and Rebecca Morris (Honey).

Tamm and Tietze are uncomfortably compelling as a couple caught in a nasty love-hate relationship, and Fugate and Morris provide more than a mere foil for them. Fugate is a great fit as the all-American charmer who’s far less virile than he’d like you to believe. Meanwhile, Morris takes a sweet, simple character and makes her interesting.

While the main story revolves around George and Martha’s attempts to take out their misery on their guests via a series of manipulative, alcohol-fueled “games,” theatergoers will miss out if they ignore the Cold War subtext and the 1950s-era American Dream mentality.

For example, Martha blames George for his lack of career success because she believes he failed to take what was rightly his: He’s educated, white and married to the college president’s daughter. According to the prevailing views of the time, George should be in line to become head of the college himself. Yet he fails to even lead his academic department.

The fact that Martha is more disappointed about this than George points to another 1950s-era assumption: Women earn their sense of self-worth through the success — or failure — of their husbands. Offering a Martha who’s equally infuriating and heartbreaking, Tietze is the local production’s standout actor.

In Woolf, every character harbors a secret he or she is desperate to keep hidden. At the same time, all four share a belief in the importance of children — yet both couples seem incapable of having kids. Their inability to create a new generation echoes a general fear of annihilation that permeates this play.

The Cold War allusions occur mostly between George, who symbolizes America, and Nick, who symbolizes the now-defunct Soviet Union. That these two men face off against each other — George, by declaring his disgust for Nick’s “man-of-the-future” potential; Nick, by attempting to sleep with George’s wife under his own roof — isn’t surprising. What ensues between these husbands and wives once the war games begin leaves the audience wondering how it will all end, much the way nations on the brink of war wonder what life will be like when the battles finally cease.

Forty years later, Woolf remains uncomfortable and necessary viewing.

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