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Wednesday, April 22, 2009 01:49 pm

Virginia Woolf still sounds new after all these years

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Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966.

Okay, so for those of you who are looking for a night of fun and games, big acting and an American theater classic at the same time, get your tickets to spend an evening with George and Martha.

This weekend is the first production of Edward Albee’sWho’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to be seen in this area in many years. This play, by the now 82-year-old Albee, runs for just two performances, Friday and Saturday, April 24-25, at the Hoogland Center for the Arts in downtown Springfield, presented by TriCara Productions. The three-act drama will be performed in the intimate Club Room, which will add an extra dimension to the play.

Matt Schwartz directs Albee’s award-winning play, featuring Harvey Mack and Cynda Wrightsman as George and Martha, a faculty couple who have created an elaborate style of game-playing in their marriage. J. B. Meier and Cassie Poe play Nick and Honey, the young, just-arrived-at-the-college faculty couple who have been invited over for drinks in the late hours one Saturday night.

“I read the script when I was in high school,” said Schwartz, “and was just fascinated by the whole thing. It’s always been a play I’ve wanted to tackle.”

At a rehearsal two weeks before the opening, Schwartz was encouraging the actors to reach inside themselves, to look hard at what was going on during this late-night party, what was going on in both these marriages. He was pushing them to give everything they’ve got in their performances. The play is a kind of mystery and black comedy, as the plot slowly unfolds over three acts.

“It’s like climbing Mount Everest!” says Cynda Wrightsman, talking about taking on the role of Martha.

Edward Albee’s first play, The Zoo Story, had been an off-Broadway hit, and when

Virginia Woolf? exploded onto Broadway, Oct. 13, 1962, he achieved stature as the new great American playwright (along with Eugene O’Neill, Tennesee Williams, Arthur Miller, etc.). In 1966 the play was turned into a Hollywood film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (she won an Oscar for her performance), and the film somewhat overshadowed the play.

Many great actors have taken on these roles over the years, most recently with Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner on Broadway, London and a national tour. I saw the tour in Chicago two years ago with a mostly young audience who were not familiar with the play. It was an amazing experience seeing this play four decades after it was written, still sounding as if it were new.

Albee is a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner and is still writing. Recent works are Three Tall Women, The Goat or Who is Sylvia?, The Play About the Baby and Occupant.

Show time is 7:30 p.m. Call the box office at the Hoogland Center for the Arts for tickets (523-2787).

And this weekend the wildly inventive production of Shakespeare’s comedyAs You Like It finishes its run (Thurs-Sat. at 8 p.m.) at the UIS Studio Theatre. Eric Thibodeaux-Thompson’s production is great fun and features a brilliant ensemble of 18 actors, led by Aasne Vigessa and featuring Kevin Purcell, Roger Boyd, Ashley Warren, Joey Cruse, Ted Keylon, Dwight Langford and Patrick O’Brien. Bravo to everyone, onstage and backstage. Call 206-6160 for tickets.

Phil Funkenbusch had the great fortune to be the assistant to playwright/director Edward Albee on the Broadway production of The Man Who Had Three Arms at New York’s Lyceum Theatre in 1983.

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