In Friday’s 7 section I have an interview with Brad Myers about Friday’s opening of Artists’ Repertory Theatre’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” It’s been 30 years since this classic play was seen in Fresno. Myers directs the show, which runs through July 27 at the Severance Theatre, and also stars as George, one-half of the play’s famed George-and-Martha-married-couple sparring duo.
Here’s an extended version of Myers’ interview.
Question: For those who aren’t familiar with the play, give us a brief synopsis.
Answer: George, a professor at a small university, and his wife, Martha, the daughter of the university’s president, return home after attending a faculty party at the home of Martha’s father. It is after 2 in the morning. However, Martha informs George that she has invited over a new young faculty member (Nick) and his wife (Honey). The unsuspecting couple arrives, and is introduced to the remarkable wit and sparring of the older couple. The banter between George and Martha is initially playful. However, their well-exercised games begin to cross dangerous new boundaries. Through the course of the evening, the party antics whirl out of control, careening from eruptive humor to dramatic intensity. Ultimately, George is forced to conduct a drastic and final game.
You played George when you were in graduate school at the University of Arizona. Tell us about that experience.
I remember two things most vividly about the experience. The first was working with Glenda Young, who played Martha. We spent many hours outside of rehearsal working to incorporate a rich biographical history into our portrayals. Immediately after we closed in “Virginia Woolf,” Glenda and I went into rehearsals for a local dinner theatre production of “I Do! I Do!.” I suspect there was an unintended transfer of the “Virginia Woolf” dynamic that gave that frothy musical an eerily dark undertone. Secondly, I recall Edward Albee attending one of our “Virginia Woolf” performances, followed by a talk back with the playwright. Of course, I was terrified given Mr. Albee had a reputation for being painfully blunt. However, he was very kind. Or, at least, forgiving.
After spending years on the stage (and in a university environment), how has your take on the role changed?
As I was preparing to direct this production, I realized how much I had missed in my first attempt at George. I was in my early twenties, and part of my short-sightedness came from not having the life experience vital to fully appreciate the character. After over 30 years in academia, I am much more informed about the measures of success and failure in the university culture. I also have a greater fascination with the play’s indictment of the American dream and the stylistic influences from Theatre of the Absurd. A continued challenge for me is to gain an understanding of a decades-long marriage anchored in an intense love, and tortured by unfulfilled hopes. One does not often get a do-over in the theatre. I am so grateful for this opportunity.
For some people, the 1966 movie version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton remains an indelible “Virginia Woolf” experience. How faithful was the movie to the play? As an actor, does the existence of an iconic performance by a movie star have any sort of impact on your own interpretation of the role?
Most of the movie script is directly drawn from the play. Although the movie has a few changes in locations (the car, the bar) which are not in the stage version, the film characters are true to Mr. Albee’s original text. The language in the movie was cleaned up a bit, and the stage play is even rawer.
The movie is one of my favorites, and I consider Elizabeth Taylor’s performance (for which she won her second Academy Award) to be one of the great film portrayals of all time. That being said, we did not spend a lot of time studying the film. It is crucial that we are not trying to do mere impersonations of Taylor and Burton, but look to find characterizations that are a marriage of our own artistry and the brilliant characters the playwright has written.
Leslie Martin plays opposite you as Martha. You’ve known her for years. Have you ever acted together before? Does knowing someone as well as you know Leslie make a difference when you’re together playing this couple?
Leslie was a student at Fresno State when I first came here as a new faculty member. She was one of the most fascinating freshmen I had ever encountered–quirky, hilarious, profound and uniquely gifted. Through the years we have transitioned from a teacher/student relationship to being great, great friends. I love her enormously. Our true care for each other helps us to discover the more elusive quality in George and Martha’s relationship–their deep love for each other. Underneath all of the abuse is a mutual recognition that they are true soul mates. I cannot think of another actor with whom I could better find that foundation.
Leslie and I performed together in a Second Space production of “The Little Foxes.” I have also directed her in numerous productions at Fresno State.
Last year, Leslie announced she was “retiring” from performing. How did you manage to get her back on stage?
Leslie was indeed sincere when she decided that she wanted to focus exclusively on her writing. However, Martha has always been her dream role. I didn’t want to pressure her into auditioning; I merely let her know I would be directing the production. I had no idea if she would show up at auditions or not, and she knew she would have to earn the role in the audition. She did. After seeing her performance, I think audiences will be thrilled that she momentarily tip-toed out of “retirement” to tackle this role that she was meant to play.
After more than 50 years, how do you think “Virginia Woolf” holds up in terms of its place in American theater?
Edward Albee is one of the great American playwrights and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is his masterpiece. The blend of wit, repartee, complex characters, intense drama, and story remains unsurpassed. I am so excited to give local audiences a re-introduction to this classic–a play which has not been performed in Fresno for over thirty years.
When it was written, the idea of an American “family” was pretty rigid: husband, wife, kids. We live in a different world today. Do you think we watch “Virginia Woolf” differently, too?
As is true of all theatre, I think each audience member will receive the play from a personal perspective. Many Americans still consider their happiness to be dependent upon the attainment of marriage and children; others believe they must succeed in careers to be ultimately fulfilled; still others may find the play a celebration of how much they have evolved by being freed from those traditional values. One can also experience the play as mere escapism, a great story about a troubled couple who are spinning out of control, and fighting to survive.
Tell us about your creative vision for the Artists’ Repertory Theatre production. Have you stuck to the original play’s lengthy running time?
I categorize the play as Absurd Realism. All interpretive choices are devoted to making the characters as believable as possible, and making the environment as real as possible. The production is set in the original time period, the early 1960s. The Absurdist qualities have been taken care of by Mr. Albee in the writing. The theater configuration has the audience on three-sides so the performance is quite intimate. The approximate running time of the production, including two ten-minute intermissions, is two hours and twenty minutes.
Anything else you’d like to say?
Justin Ringhofer plays Nick and Bridget Martin plays Honey. Audiences may remember Justin from his portrayal of George Bailey in the Fresno State production of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I loved working with him then, and marvel at how much he has grown since graduating. I have seen Bridget in numerous performances at Fresno City College and with Woodward Shakes. She is a wonderful actor and I’m so happy to have this opportunity to work with her.
IT CANNOT BE OVERSTATED THAT THIS PLAY CONTAINS VERY MATURE CONTENT. The language is often adult, the situations are sometimes sexual.
What a ride this has been. What I most value about this production is the chemistry between the actors. I hope this will be an entertaining, compelling and unforgettable visit to the home of George and Martha.