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Mind Games

George and Martha do battle in powerful Shakespeare Santa Cruz version of Albee classic

By Rob Pratt

One of the principal ways in which theater works upon the human heart is as a mirror that clearly reflects unique human characteristics. Great theatrical productions use this mirror to heighten an audience's sense of humanity and to leave theatergoers with a palpable pride in the complexity and the dignity of humankind's highest aspiration. Such is the impact of Shakespeare Santa Cruz's production of Edward Albee's landmark of the American stage, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, running in repertory through Aug. 29. Directed by SSC veteran Michael Edwards and starring a masterful cast, including festival artistic director Paul Whitworth, this production of Woolf is sure to linger in the memory as one of the company's greatest achievements.

The setting of the play is deceptively simple: the living room of a modest home near the campus of an ivy-draped New England university circa 1962. Like Albee's text, Edwards' staging is comfortable at first. Scenic designer Scott Bradley's set radiates warm reds and deep blues behind an upholstered sofa and a pair of easy chairs. As Albee's text takes his unhappy characters into painful and often sadistic examinations of their deepest desires and compulsions, the set begins to show its wear. On closer examination, the paint on the walls can be seen to be peeling as if the plaster is shedding dead skin. The cozy furnishings provide middling comfort to personalities who are emotionally tortured. The carpet pile is thoroughly trodden.

Whitworth plays George, a tenured professor of history who's married to Martha (Kate Skinner), the ambitious daughter of the president of the university. The two entertain a young biology professor, Nick (Coleman Zeigen), and his wife, Honey (Vicki Van Tassel), after a faculty mixer. Whitworth and Skinner are perfectly matched. As George, Whitworth's gift for rendering calculating characters torn by inner turmoil—which SSC devotees may remember from recent festivals when he brilliantly played the title role in Richard III and Iago in Othello—serves him well. Whitworth also suffuses George with great warmth, boyish vulnerability and a capacity for unconditional love that make the play's hopeful denouement totally believable.

Skinner's Martha is a stark contrast, almost entirely outward-focused and physical, acting on instinct rather than intellect and moving with the limber grace and powerful menace of a lioness on the prowl. Skinner delivers as much emotional information in a strutting cross from down left to down right as Whitworth does with a facial tic or a rub of the temples.

Zeigen and Van Tassel as Nick and Honey are very appealing as the perfect young couple—a brilliant scientist and a devoted and proper wife. George and Martha instantly see through their ruse, but Nick and Honey must have these pretensions stripped away in a deliberate and painful series of revelations and mind games. Zeigen in particular makes a highly nuanced transformation, as if aging a full decade, moving from innocence to experience, in the small space of a few hours.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plays Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 7:30pm through Aug. 29 at Theater Arts Center Mainstage at UC­Santa Cruz as part of Shakespeare Santa Cruz's summer 2004 season. Tickets are $10­$40. (831.459.2159)

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From the August 18-24, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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