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Poor Richard’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? packs plenty of bite

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Woolf at Onyx Theatre may remind you of a dysfunctional marriage or two.
Photo: Richard Brusky
Molly O'Donnell

Four stars

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? August 14-16, 21-13, 8 p.m.; August 17, 2 p.m., $25. Onyx Theatre, 702-732-7225.

It’s difficult to walk away from any production of Edward Albee’s masterpiece Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with a smile. The 180-minute, four-character, single-set play is an emotionally exhausting, booze-fueled voyage into the heart of a dysfunctional marriage. That said, a good production makes you laugh as much as you grimace, because as heart-wrenching as it can be, it’s also a bitingly witty drama. A quality run fits George’s assessment of his wife Martha’s “hideous gifts,” intellect matched only by its misuse. Fortunately, Poor Richard’s Players’ current production of Virginia Woolf at the Onyx Theatre flaunts these ugly talents, doing justice to the psychologically nuanced material.

The play hinges on a couple of key factors: George and Martha’s chemistry and the audience’s sympathy for their younger guests, as fresh to the college where George works as they are to married life. For this reason, casting can be a tricky business. It’s difficult to find actors dynamic enough to be kind to each other in one breath and cruel in the next—and still seem like a couple. Taylor Hanes and Valerie Bernstein fit the bill nicely. His George convincingly banters and bears Bernstein’s Martha as long as he can, but not without a hint of simmering rage. Bernstein (who is made to bear a striking resemblance to the most famous Martha, Elizabeth Taylor) puts all the heart and physicality she can into both her assaults and her pleas. In the couple’s complex game of make-believe and revelation, the actors coalesce to evoke the drama’s disorienting passion.

Brandon McClenahan and Rachel Perry as the new couple in town likewise do a good job of reflecting the audience’s discomfiture in being brought into a private conflict. They persuasively portray characters that devolve as their exposure to a cautionary future unfolds and their masks come off, becoming as implicated as the audience feels. The fact that the whole play is as gin-soaked as a speakeasy assists this de-evolution as much as it makes a few stepped-on and flubbed lines more forgivable. How’s that for a hideous gift, players?

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