Putting on a professional theater production can be nerve-wracking long before opening night. Will the actors manage to memorize those mountains of dialogue? Can the designer create a workable set? Is the lighting technician going to get his cues straight? And, not least, will enough tickets be sold to cover the costs? As with so many things in life, the whole is utterly dependent on the sum of its parts, and a director has only so much quality control.
So Vermont Stage Company Artistic Director Mark Nash really didn't need another drama-within-the-drama while preparing for the final show in his season, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But that is exactly what he got.
Theater companies have to get permission to stage any production, but in the case of Virginia Woolf, playwright "Edward Albee himself has to approve the cast and the director before granting producing rights," Nash explains in an email. "We learned this a year ago when we first inquired about the rights from Samuel French, the publishing company." Though he couldn't cast an entire year in advance, Nash went ahead with his plans, assuming that the notoriously prickly 79-year-old playwright "would OK our choices and that all would be fine."
In February, Nash went to New York and cast his actors, then sent their resumes to Albee for approval. "Two weeks later, we get an email saying that there is currently a national tour of Virginia Woolf and that NO RIGHTS ARE BEING GRANTED!" Nash reports. "It went on to say that we must immediately remove the show from our website and any other advertising."
Imagining his season dissolving into disaster, Nash freaked out. Then he went into action mode. First he called the publishing company and asked for an exception. After all, the touring production wasn't coming anywhere near Vermont, so how could they compete? No dice. Plan B: somebody who knows somebody. "The world of theater is a small one," Nash explains. The actor he cast as George, Charlie Hensley, had played the same role several years ago in another production. Maybe he knew a way to get to Albee and plead his case?
In fact, Hensley had Albee's private phone number, but he advised against calling the playwright directly, as he could be "a little volatile." Hensley asked Nash who was producing the national tour. "I checked into it, gave him a few names, and it turns out that Charlie is friends with one of the producers," Nash says. "He agreed to call [Albee] on my behalf and ask for an exception."
The result of that phone call is obvious: Under the direction of Stephan Golux, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opens this week at VSC's home, the FlynnSpace. And Nash's anxiety has turned into ecstasy: Having watched the dress rehearsals, he declares the performances "absolutely thrilling every step of the way."
Indeed, the play has been thrilling, and chilling, audiences since its Tony Award-winning debut in 1962. In it, George and Martha (Alison Edwards) and Honey (Kate Downing) and Nick (Alex Pierce) - an older university couple and a younger professor with his submissive wife - spend a boozy, abusive evening together, and the TMI quotient is deliciously discomfiting. While the profanity and sexuality are far less shocking today, the surreal, psychological Woolf has lost none of its bite.