Review: Invictus Theatre Shatters the Illusion of the American Marriage in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of those classics with faces and names etched on my memory. I was probably too young to see it when it premiered in 1966 but some years later, I saw it at the Roseland Theatre with my mom and her friend. The movie screen has its own illusional qualities that make the bare-knuckle brawling of George and Martha safely distanced. Invictus Theatre Company’s artistic director Charles Askenaizer helms this Edward Albee script to put the anger and burned dreams of that famous couple in your face. In this storefront space, the performance is intense like that carnival ride with the centrifugal force that pins you to the wall as the floor falls away. You remember the terror but you get on that ride anyway.

This cast does not have a weak link. All four leave such an indelible mark that the characters remain even when offstage. Andrea Uppling is brilliant as the desperate and fulfillment-starved Martha. She bursts through the door—all frowsy and brass. Uppling fills the character so well that the olfactory smell of booze, cigarettes, and even staler perfume comes to mind. Her movement is perfectly out of control and unrestrained. James Turano as George is divine. He possesses a melodious baritone that is comforting and then terrifying and dripping in bitterness. Turano has gravitas and royal bearing that reminds me of Richard Burton. He embodies the professor of a down-at-the-heels college in New England who was supposed to be tenured but is under the heel of Martha and her father.

Keenan Odenkirk, Andrea Uppling, Rachel Livingston, and James Turano. Photo by Aaron Reese Boseman Photography.

Uppling and Turano’s characters are snarling competitors without boundaries even in front of their unsuspecting guests Nick (Keenan Odenkirk) and Honey (Rachel Livingston). Once again, these actors make the characters their own. Odenkirk’s Nick has a veneer of arrogance and propriety that reveals him to be more of a social/faculty climber—especially after copious amounts of bourbon. Nick sheds the veneer of the athletic and towheaded youth from the Midwest jockeying to be the head of the department. My favorite character in this beautiful maelstrom is Nick’s wife Honey and Rachel Livingston plays her magnificently. Honey is a mousy character who seems prim and proper, laughs nervously, and says all the right things. Livingston plays Honey as someone who has suppressed her feelings and ambition. As George plies her with brandy, she sheds her propriety, exposing a repressed soul who trapped Nick into marrying her and seems to have an eating disorder. Livingston fleshes out the character more than I have seen in previous productions where actors have tried to emulate Sandy Dennis’ portrayal in the film.

Andrea Uppling and James Turano. Photo by Aaron Reese Boseman Photography.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a play that is difficult to direct and stage. Black box theater has challenges that bring out the ingenuity of directors. The action is in your face and not for the faint of heart with seething performances like this fine cast. Charles Askenaizer has an exacting touch, which is needed for characters that are reeling literally and figuratively. The entire stage is used to give a claustrophobic ambiance. The audience is trapped willingly like all of the characters. Scenic designer Kevin Rolfs does a knockout job of creating the shoddy gentility of George and Martha. The furniture is right out of the ’60s and the scattered magazines include Life and Look. Those were the magazines that reported trends of the successful Americans. The books and scattered newspapers add to the chaos of the scenery.

Everything works together in dissonance to bring an American treasure to Chicago. If you are from that era, you will remember it well and possibly know people like this—hiding an atavistic nature behind the dark wood and ivy of academia. Even if you are not from this era, go and see this classic from a titan of American playwrights. Edward Albee took the old guard ethics of the East Coast in particular and peeled back the skin. This is America that transcends all preconceptions about class and background. It’s raw, tragic, and unforgettable. It’s a short run. Do not miss it.

Invictus Theatre Company’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs through June 12 at the Reginald Vaughn Theatre, 1106 W. Thorndale. Tickets are $31 with discounted tickets for students and seniors at $26. Covid protocols are firmly in place. You must be fully vaccinated with a card and ID. Masks are to be worn over the nose and mouth everywhere in the theater. It’s not an inconvenience- it is doing our part to keep Chicago theater going strong.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.