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Midlife of a masterwork: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Theatre Charlotte offers classic with fangs bared

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In the 50+ years since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? stormed onto Broadway in October 1962, things have loosened up. Actors and directors can now wield all the language that Edward Albee originally wrote without fear of the consequences that assailed the playwright, who was censored on Broadway and in Hollywood — and denied the Pulitzer Prize that had been duly judged to be his. For the first time, in the current production at Theatre Charlotte, I was able to hear the title sung as a parody of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" a privilege that Disney denied to Warner Brothers in 1966 when they filmed the Tony Award drama on a budget of $7.5 million.

Directed by Charles LaBorde, the 2013 production at the Queens Road barn also restores some 45-60 minutes of running time that were trimmed in the more discreet and neighborly version of 2001 piloted by Candace Sorensen when she was the company's managing director. We're back to watching the face-off between George and Martha as a battle of titans — or we will be when Theatre Charlotte executive director Ron Law settles more fully in his leading role.

Forced to take over the role after casting had been announced and rehearsals begun, Law is even shakier on his lines than Alan McClintock was performing George in the pocket Woolf of 2001. In the final act on opening night, the situation became most acute as Law camped out for awhile near an end table and kept sneaking glances downward — likely to read helpful cues at that distance rather than chunks of dialogue.

Law's difficulties take their toll on the momentum and intensity of the fiercest marital clashes between Martha, the university president in New Carthage, and George, the flop as future history department chairman and daddy's heir apparent. But a certain amount of verbal stumbling actually plays into George's late-night drunkenness and the chronic ineptitude of our frumpy hero, making him more sympathetic as he tilts against the termagant Martha. There were hardly any less gasps from the audience than I'd hope for when hostilities spiked.

In fact, Paula Baldwin is both anti-heroic and heroic as the vicious Martha under these trying circumstances, though they must take a toll. Do you bide your time when Law isn't instantly picking up his cue, or do you plow ahead and feed him another? Maybe if LaBorde had decreed more drunkenness from his principals, Law's crises might appear more benign. There are enough fresh rounds of booze served up at George's bar during the afterparty in his living room to warrant anyone's staggering across the set and bumping into a wall at any moment when he or she is struggling to come up with the next line. Consumption of booze is so ferocious in this New Carthage cottage that it provides no fewer than three exits, two for guest Honey when she must throw up and one for George when he must retrieve new bottles from the cellar.

Enough latitude is built into the script for it to be presented as a critique of cocktail culture or an allegory on the decline of American civilization. Albee has not only confirmed that George and Martha are named for our first president and his wife but that his guest Nick, the young bio department hotshot that George decries as a prime threat to the future, was named after USSR premier Nikita Khrushchev. On the other hand, it's pretty prescient of Albee to be taking genetic engineering seriously during the Kennedy Administration, years before we'd even reached the moon.

LaBorde ignores Albee's specifications for the hair color and girth of the guests who venture unwittingly into the George-and-Martha lair. On the strength of his Queens Road debut in the title role of The Graduate two years back, it isn't surprising that Adam Griffin can fast-forward and become the vulnerable biology phenom who gets a little better than he can give from his hosts. Hips aside, Martina Logan is as dizzy and dopey as you could wish for as Honey, the rich preacher's daughter, a sizable leap from the pathologically brainy role she had last year as microbiologist Artemis in Eleemosynary, down in Ballantyne.

So yes, this is a solid cast in a production that will surely firm up in its second week. Chris Timmons' set is as deep and detailed as we've seen in a while at Theatre Charlotte, shrewdly calibrated in its mustiness and bookishness for the revels and verbal fencing to come. Not to mention Martha's Bette Davis quote. John Hartness doesn't make any mistakes in gauging the time lapse between the first two acts and the third with his lighting design, and J.R. Adduci's fight choreography makes George's attack on Martha very vivid — though it ends in yet another humiliating defeat.

Actually, it is quite admirable how Law has stepped up in an emergency, taking on a formidable lead in a production that clocked in at 2:44 plus two intermissions. Even when he wasn't secure with the text, there were only the smallest cracks in character to be observed under the close scrutiny of the critic in Row B — and no flaws in the fascinating marital chemistry. A few minutes will undoubtedly be shaved from the running time as everything continues to jell, but if you attend on a Friday, you'll need to set your DVR if you're planning to watch all of Bill Maher when you get home.

The two go together quite well.

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