Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had me on the edge of my seat for all the reasons you’d expect, plus one more.
I was mortified that my cell phone was going to ring.
It was an irrational fear. I had turned off my cell phone, taken out the battery, and left it in the car. Despite these precautions, I could not allay the dread that filled my soul, that somehow I would disrupt one of my favorite plays, written by a man that I’m very best friends with in a parallel universe. It didn’t help when, during the second of two intermissions, a bartender cautioned me that the sound of the ice in my drink might cause Tracy Letts and Amy Morton to break character, lunge over the seats, and wring my inconsiderate neck. The bartender blithely transferred my scotch into an ice-free coffee cup with a lid, but one little chunk of ice slipped into the otherwise sound-proofed container. She slid it across the counter to me. “Eh, that will melt.”
Inside the theater, my senses were heightened. Even the slightest sounds reverberated loudly and diverted my attention from the action onstage. The cautionary tale I had read just weeks earlier, of the theatergoer whose ill-timed cell phone had ruined the culmination of one of 20th Century America’s greatest plays, left me anxious and distracted. But it appeared to have had no such effect on my fellow audience members, some of whom exclaimed loudly and verbally, in shock, apparently, whenever George cursed (whether it be in English or Spanish or French). A woman tried to squeeze every last drop from her plastic water bottle, creating an inadvertent and unappreciated musical score during the exorcism scene. Sneezes cannot be helped, of course, but the courtesies usually left at the door to the theater remained in full effect: “God Bless You”s and “Thank you”s in loud whispers, while George and Martha terrorized their young guests. “You’re welcome.” “Don’t mention it.”
Despite all these audible distractions, Pam McKinnon’s production of Albee’s Woolf proved to be a highlight of my theater-going experience in Chicago. No surprise that Tracy Letts and Amy Morton give great performances as the caustic old married couple George and Martha. But the younger couple, Carrie Coons and Madison Dirks as Nick and Honey, hold their own against those veterans. Coons in particular, with her discomfited facial contortions and physical gestures, adeptly portrays a sympathetic character, one who just can’t help the fact that she’s mousy and slim-hipped and not very interesting. And the set design was incredible, perfectly capturing the living quarters of an eccentric, socially crippled college professor and his undomesticated, batshit-crazy wife.
During the final act, as I drained the few last drops of scotch from my paper cup, that little chunk of ice - which had not melted, despite my bartender’s assurance - clunked noisily against the plastic lid, and the sound was like a bomb exploding. Fortunately, Letts and Morton didn’t seem to notice. Neither did anyone in the audience. George and Martha continued tearing each other apart, tongues lashing vengefully at each other, as I gingerly placed the cup between my feet and sat, frozen, for the remainder of the play.