Grandstreet Theatre

VIRGINIA WOOLF: Helena IR preview

Grandstreet stages Albee’s searing drama — ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

By MARGA LINCOLN Independent Record
Thursday, JANUARY 14, 2010

Martha (Leah Joki) entertains Nick (Nathan Wright) and Honey (Kelly Clavin)

Hailed by critics as one of America’s greatest dramas, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is a searing, unforgettable tale of love and marriage.

Grandstreet Theatre brings the award-winning Edward Albee drama to the stage Jan. 15, starring two relative newcomers to Helena’s theater scene.

It’s also the curtain call for director Stephen Alexander, the artistic director at Grandstreet for three seasons who is moving back to Portland in February.

Set in 1962 — the era of the Cold War and the Kennedy Camelot years, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” stepped boldly outside the entertainment norms of its day.

Although it was selected to win the 1963 Pulitzer Prize, the trustees of Columbia University, which oversees the award, objected to the play’s profanity and sexual themes. As a result, no Pulitzer Prize for drama was given that year.

And 47 years later, it’s still provocative.

The entire action of the play unfolds in one evening in the living room of a middle-aged university couple, George and Martha, who’ve invited in a younger professor, Nick, and his wife, Honey, for after-party drinks and “fun and games.”

As the liquor flows, the caustic and sarcastic dueling of George and Martha ratchet up — making for a darkly funny and explosive evening.

Alexander calls Albee’s play one of the best American dramas ever written, comparing the beauty of the writing to Shakespeare’s.

“I’m very passionate about the play,” said Alexander. “It’s a dream play to work with.

“Sometimes the language is so poetic, you feel like the top of your head is taking off. Sometimes it’s so coarse, it’s as if you’re thrown in the gutter.

“It’s a very realistic play. It’s beyond most realism — it’s ultra realism.

“It’s a cautionary tale. What’s amazing is that it’s a love story. A lot of directors forget that the battles are part of what relationships are about.”

But it’s something that Grandstreet’s George and Martha are well aware of, he added.

George is played by Chris Korow — a veteran of Ann Arbor Civic Theatre and The Driftwood Players, a community theater in Edmonds, Wash. — who moved to Helena in 2008. He appeared last year as Charlie Davenport in Grandstreet’s production of “Annie Get Your Gun.”

Martha, portrayed by Leah Joki, a graduate of theater programs at the University of Montana and The Juilliard School, acted professionally off-Broadway, on TV soap operas and in theaters in California, where she also ran a prison theater program.

While the bulk of the dialog is between George and Martha, Nick (Nathan Wright) and Honey (Kelly Clavin) are constantly responding to the drama unfolding around them.

Wright has appeared in 10 other Grandstreet productions, most recently “Irma Vep,” while Clavin, a student at Carroll College, was in a number of Grandstreet productions years ago.

While Albee’s drama is considered a dark comedy, it touches on tragedy.

Although there is no physical death of a character, there is a lot of metaphorical death, said Alexander.

“The people in the play are recognized for the rest of our lives,” he said. “It’s talking about marriage — particularly the American marriage and the games and masks people use in order to accomplish what they need — even at the expense of another person. They do not have any problem pushing someone down in order to create the fiction they wish to have for themselves.”

Korow calls it “an incredible script. It’s very cleverly written. You have to listen. You have to focus on the words.

“Most people think it’s a lot of yelling at each other. But there’s a lot more to it than that. There’s a lot of humor. A lot of subtle stuff.”

Korow describes George as an exceptionally intelligent character who tries to control situations with his mind.

“He has a destructive streak, a vicious streak. There’s a mean part of his character and his wife brings this out in him.”

Martha, the daughter of the university president, believed that one day George would take over the president position, himself.

“He doesn’t have what it takes to take over,” said Korow, “and she won’t let him forget it.”

After all these years together, Martha knows how to expertly push his buttons to get an emotional reaction.

“I think the two people actually do really love each other. There’s a fine line between love and hate. They’re closer to the hate side of love at this time. They’ve been together a lot of years and they’ve made decisions that neither one is happy with.

“If you’re willing to invest yourself, you’ll get insights on your own relationship. You can see where it might go along a certain road. It can put you in touch with something you hadn’t thought about before.”

Joki compares her role of Martha to a “mental, vocal and emotional marathon.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever done anything as demanding,” she said, “except for a performance of ‘The Maids’ by Genet,” when the cast performed the play at 7 p.m. in French and 9 p.m. in English.

“Martha is extremely bright, she’s been very pampered throughout her life.”

Over the years, there are cumulative effects of her dysfunctional relationship with George.

“She’s a heavy drinker. She’s very bawdy. She’s sadly dysfunctional. But you’ve got to like her. She’s got a lot chutzpah.

“It’s an incredibly well written play. It’s an absolute classic. They don’t come much better than this.”

Joki is impressed that Grandstreet, which often does family-oriented plays, has taken on this demanding drama.

“This is a great opportunity to see something you don’t see in Helena,” she said.

“Each act is a roller-coaster ride.”