Friday, May 15, 2009

Ray Blum Raves About "Virginia Woolf"

The following review ran in the May 15, 2009 issue of The Daily Advertiser.

Perform: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf wins, places and shows

There is a maxim that "Nothing is ever easy." Ask Jody Powell, the director of Eunice Players' Theatre's production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and I am certain that she would enthusiastically agree.

Seems that about a week before the show was originally set to open, she lost the show's male lead. The role of George is one of the most emotionally complex and difficult ones in all of American theater, and to lose that character would normally be the death knell for the play.

I have spent a great deal of time in past columns crowing about the high, professional quality of the local performers who grace our community theater stages. One such actor is Blaine Peltier, who stepped in to fill George's shoes. The play's opening was postponed one week and, like a crocus rising out of a snowbank, blossomed into a beautiful splendor.

Let me state, early on, that Eunice Players' version of Virginia Woolf is the best production of the Edward Albee classic I've ever seen, bar none. I have seen every one of the performers in other productions, but I have never seen any of them come close to the truly gifted level of quality that they demonstrate in Powell's play - individually or in ensemble.

The three-act play is about two couples whose behavior exemplifies dysfunction. Virginia Woolf was a 20th century British feminist and novelist who pioneered the literary style known as stream of consciousness by examining her characters' psychological and emotional relationship to reality. Albee, the playwright, let his characters bash themselves and each other in an attempt to illustrate their unwillingness to look reality in the eye.

George (Blaine Peltier) is a middle-aged, embittered history professor married to his college president's daughter, Martha (Deborah Ardoin). After a faculty party, they invite a new professor and his wife to their house, arriving at 2 a.m. Nick (Gabe Ortego), a biology teacher, is supporting his unsteady and mousy wife, Honey (Bonnie Pitre) who is already three sheets to the wind. Everyone continues to drink while Martha and George both verbally and physically engage in cruel battle in front of their guests. The younger couple is simultaneously fascinated and embarrassed by the "fun and games" and remain at the weird gathering even when the abuse is turned toward them as well.

Honey periodically passes out and vomits out the booze so she can regain consciousness and rejoin the fray. Like a deer frozen in the headlights, Nick is seduced by Martha, while like some sort of demonic conductor, George directs the emotional maelstrom with a glassful of scotch as his baton.

As black and pessimistic as the play might seem, the ending gives a glimpse of redemption. Nick and Honey have stumbled off to their home and George, with his arm around Honey, tenderly sings a parody of the Disney lyric, "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Martha, in a finally fragile voice, responds, "I am, George. I am."

Most audiences are aware of the play through the film production featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the major roles. The movie was a two-plus hour exercise in screaming. The Eunice play was a two-plus hour exercise in fine acting.

What a difference! Simply being loud is a weak way to present great emotion. What Ardoin, Peltier, Pitre and Ortego gave us was high emotion demonstrated through their bodies, their facial expressions, various grunts and groans and the wonderful way they delivered their lines.

Each of the quartet executed everything that a performer should, and did it in a way that by rights should have earned an Equity card for each. I feel sorry for a director with one or two blazing performers imbalanced by a handful of weak and indifferent performers. Not only does the play suffer, the stellar performances labor under the same consequence. Not so with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The ensemble performance given by the four Thespians has very few peers on any stage, anywhere.

This season is Eunice Players' Theatre's 40th anniversary. What better way to put a jewel atop the crown than to present a play as worthy of ovation as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
I give The Georgie to the whole magilla, director as well as cast! Huzzah, huzzah, huzzah!

Ray Blum is a freelance writer who covers theater and performance in Acadiana.

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