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(Courtesy Photo) Teresa Sanderson as Martha and Jared Larkin as George in Pinnacle Acting Company's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Theater review: ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ seethes with passion and venom
Review » Knockout performances and tight-knit direction fuel this powerful production.
First Published Jun 13 2014 04:33 pm • Last Updated Jun 13 2014 05:07 pm

We’ve all experienced them — married couples who have been together so long, they carp and criticize each other without being aware of it. It doesn’t matter if they’re alone or someone else is present. They are locked into a pattern of pushing each other’s buttons.

Take one of those couples and multiply the intensity of their encounters a thousand times. What you get is George and Martha in Edward Albee’s "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" — a Pinnacle Acting Company production that is one of the most compelling shows in the current theater season.

At a glance

‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

Pinnacle’s powerhouse production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is one of the best of the season.

When » Reviewed on June 12; continues Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. through June 28 with a 2 p.m. matinee Saturday, June 28.

Where » Jewett Center for the Performing Arts, Westminster College, 1250 E. 1700 South, Salt Lake City

Running time » Two hours and 45 minutes (including two intermissions)

Tickets » $15; $13 for students and seniors; discounts for groups of 10 or more with advance notice. Call 801-810-5793 or visit www.pinnacleactingcompany.org for tickets or information. The play contains adult language and situations.

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George and Martha are far from typical, despite their symbolic names as a typical WASP couple bogged down in academia at a small New England college. They are bright, articulate and diabolically clever; George says they are "walking what’s left of our wits."

They once were passionately in love. That passion persists, but its focus has shifted from supporting to sabotaging. Martha drinks too much; George’s academic career has reached a disappointing dead end. When they invite Nick, a new faculty member, and his wife, Honey, home after a university get-together, what begins as witty verbal calisthenics accelerates into "total war" that engulfs their guests. As George warns Nick, "There’s quicksand here, and you’ll be dragged down."

George and Martha make up the rules of the games they play as they go along, and eventually it becomes impossible to decipher what’s true and what isn’t. Martha accosts George with "truth and illusion; you don’t know the difference," and he responds, "No, but we must carry on as though we did." When the ritualistic third act reveals the secret that haunts them, we finally get a sense of at least one part of the loss that has driven George and Martha to the corners where they now alternately snarl and hide.

The play evolves as a series of confrontations like the boxing match Martha alludes to. The combatants face off, do battle, then recuperate for the next bout. It is in these quieter moments that we get more insight into the characters and the remarkable performances of this extremely well-matched cast shine. Albee has little sympathy for his characters, but the actors inject a humanity that makes them accessible and helps us understand and even empathize with them.

Teresa Sanderson and Jared Larkin prove more than worthy adversaries as Martha and George. Sanderson’s bitchy, funny Martha is also earthy and exuberant, a true life force. Larkin adds unexpected depth to George. Beneath his brittle viciousness lies a disappointed idealist struggling to reconcile the realities he must live with. These two truly cannot live with or without each other, and Sanderson and Larkin’s perceptive performances are full of surprises.

The charming, diffident surface of Mike Brown’s Nick masks an unscrupulous, uncaring ambition that meets its match in George and Martha. Honey is the play’s least developed character, but Marin Kohler combines petulance and naïveté, blindness and hurt to flesh her out. Nick and Honey aren’t likable, but Brown and Kohler make us feel sorry for them.

L.L. West’s direction is constantly in motion as the tides of battle shift. George and Martha prowl around Geoffrey Michael Eastman’s intimate living-room set, and the production rhythms are so real that we feel we are unseen guests eavesdropping. This is a long play, but the rises and falls are so well orchestrated that it never seems that way. Natalie Colony’s moody lighting accentuates the atmosphere of loss.

"Virginia Woolf" isn’t an easy play, but this production provides an engrossing look into a complex, conflicted relationship and the devastating toll it can take on the couple at its center and those around them. Albee is an intriguing playwright, and this production testifies to his power.

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