American Stage director not afraid of ‘Woolf’

No play captures marital acrimony as compellingly as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Edward Albee’s brilliant work about clashing couple George and Martha depicts the often peculiar, hurtful ways love manifests itself. The drama also deftly illuminates the illusions people maintain to overcome life’s disappointing realities.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1963.

It returned to the Great White Way in 2005 with Kathleen Turner as Martha. Bill Irwin won the Best Actor Tony for playing George.

Albee’s masterpiece begins preview performances March 8 and runs through April 23 at American Stage in St. Petersburg.

Most people attending will inevitably compare the production with the classic 1966 film version of “Woolf.”

Directed by Mike Nichols, it starred Elizabeth Taylor (Martha) opposite real-life husband at the time Richard Burton (George).

“The movie is so dark, so brutal,” said Todd Olson, producing artistic director at American Stage. “We’re trying to preserve the love and affection between George and Martha.

“I like the film a great deal, but I think it’s exhausting and they really cut a major portion out of the second act,” he added. “Ours, based on Albee’s original script, is worth more in the end because it’s about a couple that ends up together and I find the ending beautiful.”

“That’s what you don’t get from the movie.”

Albee, age 82, doesn’t allow just any theater company to stage his most famous work.

“I had to be approved, the cast and the set rendering,” Olson said. “I guess so we wouldn’t set it on the moon or something.”

Albee studied the actor’s head shots, resumes and ages.

“He’s withheld rights before in other situations,” Olson said. “I think probably what he’s doing with professional productions is making sure George is (age) 46 and Martha is 52. The husband has a lot of lines about being six years younger than her and they need to appear to be those ages.”

For Martha, Olson cast Christine Decker.

She impressed audiences and critics with her performance as noble Sister Aloysius in American Stage’s production of “Doubt” last season.

Martha remains in near constant motion, rolling around the floor and verbally abusing George until he loses it and nearly strangles her. The play runs nearly three hours with two 10-minute intermissions.

“This is absolutely the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done,” said Decker, who lives in Cambridge, N.Y. “I have bruises all over me -- but I’m like banana when it comes to bruising. Everybody is very considerate and safety minded. It’s just the nature of the beast.”

Despite Martha’s madness -- largely directed at her husband but also at the young couple who joins them for post-party cocktails -- Decker sympathizes with the character.

“Think about the period. Martha was an early feminist,” she said. “Educated but never allowed to have a career, a very intelligent woman who is restless.

“And I certainly understand that,” Decker added. “I’ve been restless my whole life.”

Richard Watson makes his American Stage debut as George. The New York City resident has appeared at playhouses nationwide as well as on television shows such as “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” He previously appeared locally at Asolo Rep during its 2004-05 season production of “Sherlock Holmes & the West End Horror.”

“Todd invited me down to audition and, after I had gotten familiar with the script, I completely fell in love it,” Watson said. “I knew when the offer came my way this was a big-league role.

“If you can imagine being on a roller coaster for three hours -- that what it’s like,” he added. “And the more we read it the more comedy we discovered.”

Olson, who has been overseeing the award-winning American Stage for nine seasons, admitted that “Woolf” ranks as the most difficult play he’s produced.

But Olson promised the hard work will pay off and that audiences perhaps hesitant about sitting through a three-hour war of words won’t be disappointed.

“It’s the feel bad hit of the year, that you’ll laugh all the way through,” Olson joked.

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