Edward Albee died a year ago. He was born eighty-eight years before in Virginia to Louise Harvey who gave him his first name. His father's identity remains a mystery; presumably he had abandoned Ms. Harvey before she gave birth. Infant Edward was shipped to an adoption agency in Manhattan, and less than a month into his life he was adopted by the financially secure, but childless, Frances and Reed Albee.
The patrician parents owned and showed horses. Reed Albee's father, Edward Albee II, operated several vaudeville theaters in and around New York. Young Edward wrote a self-described three act sex farce at the age of fourteen, the only copy of which his mother either burned or threw in the garbage. Edward claimed to have had his first homosexual experience a year or two prior; though Albee often later declared his work a separate aspect of his life. Accepting an award in 2011, he stated, “A writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self. I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay.”
As a teen Edward bounced from high school to private school to military school, getting expelled from some, cutting classes and/or walking away from others. He left home in his late teens, settling in Greenwich Village in the post-WWII era. Of his break with the Albee family, Edward said, decades down the line, “I think they wanted somebody who would be a corporate thug of some sort, or perhaps a doctor or lawyer or something respectable. They didn’t want a writer on their hands. Good God, no.”
In Greenwich Village, Edward lived off a small inheritance, worked odd jobs and fell under the influence of several artists, writers, and composers, most notably William Inge, Aaron Copeland, and William Flanagan.
Albee wrote poems and prose, but gave up on those to concentrate on playwriting in the 1950s. By the end of the decade his one-act The Zoo Story premiered on a double bill in Berlin, Germany, along with another one-acter by Samuel Beckett. The Zoo Story's seeming nihilistic approach may have been influenced by Beckett's writings. Albee's play was well received in Berlin, but rejected by several producers in New York. The Actor's Studio put it on, but for a single performance. Norman Mailer happened to be in the audience for that one night event. The celebrity novelist called The Zoo Story, “The best one-act play I’ve ever seen.”
The Provincetown Players then agreed to a six week run. This put Edward Albee on the theater-going map, though in the unconventional counties. In a New York Times interview Albee made it clear that he intended to challenge audiences to confront sirtuations and ideas lying beyond their usual comfort zones. “I want the audience to run out of the theater — but to come back and see the play again.”
This leads us to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, first staged on Broadway, at the Billy Rose Theatre, in October, 1962. Uta Hagen, Arthur Hiller, George Grizzard, and Melinda Dillon performed the four character, three act play that typically runs approximately three hours in length.
The 1966 film version with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis is appropriately ballyhooed, but the 2005 stage revival, with Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin in the lead roles, may well be the best production.
If you want a close second to the Irwin-Turner matchup, you can't beat the current Mendocino Theatre Company production with seasoned coastal actors Mark Friedrich and Pamela W. Allen as George and Martha, the college professor and wife who host a much younger biology professor and spouse in a nearly all night drink-athon. Friedrich and Allen are more than ably supported by University of Northern Colorado alums Drew Simon and Emily Batterson as Nick and Honey. Willo Hausman has capably directed this outstanding cast. Longtime backstagers George Bishop, Steve Greenwood, and Ken Krauss are at the top of their games as stage manager, light designer, and sound designer, respectively. Special note must be made of Diane Larson's set design, which makes the audience feel as if they are seated on edge within George and Martha's living room.
Discussing the plot of the play would spoil many of the darkly comedic surprises that await. The playwright's beginnings as an adopted son of the childless Albees clearly influenced the storyline. As for the title, Albee has stated, “There was a saloon — it’s changed its name now — on Tenth Street, between Greenwich Avenue and Waverly Place, that was called something at one time, now called something else, and they had a big mirror on the downstairs bar in this saloon where people used to scrawl graffiti. At one point back in about 1953 … 1954, I think it was — long before any of us started doing much of anything — I was in there having a beer one night, and I saw ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror. When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again. And of course, who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf means who’s afraid of the big bad wolf, who’s … afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical university, intellectual joke.”
The Mendocino Theatre Company production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees as well, closing October 22nd. Those willing to rise to Albee's entertainment challenge should call 707-937-4477 for tickets or consult the website: www.mendocinotheatre.org.