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Monday, March 7, 2011

My "Virginia Woolf" Obsession

Uta Hagen. The name may not mean much to you, but this acclaimed actress helped me to lose my innocence at the tender age of 12. No, I never met her, so get that nasty thought out of your head.

What I mean is that Ms. Hagen helped me to discover a cultural landscape far beyond that which I could fathom in South Bend, Indiana, in the suburban 1970s. She played Martha in the original Broadway production of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in 1962, and when I checked out the cast album of the production from the South Bend Public Library in 1972, a lifetime obsession was born.

As you know, it's not a musical, so the recording actually preserves the entire play as performed by Hagen, Arthur Hill (as George), George Grizzard (as Nick) and Melinda Dillon (as Honey). A four-record set, it's out of print, never released in any other format and highly prized by collectors. I have it, of course—and in stereo yet!

God knows I was used to hearing adults fighting, but I never knew they could do it so cleverly. Plus, I could actually listen to swearing on a record! And Hagen's Martha—alternatively brassy and purring like a jungle cat, she's a magnificent monster. Hill is kind of one-note; his George sees the humor in their dead-end situation, but his reading tends to be kind of shrill and—uh, theatrical?

The film version was an MPAA nightmare in 1966, even with the mega-couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, so I didn't get to see it until it started airing on TV in the 70s. Directed by Mike Nichols, it's a good film, and Alex North's score is wonderful.

Liz was pretty young to play Martha (she was 34; Martha is 52) but she gained 30 pounds for the role and allowed herself to be photographed as blowsy as possible. Her performance was good enough to win her the Academy Award for Best Actress. As the years go by, I have to commend her fearlessness in a time when A-list actresses worked hard to maintain as much glamour as possible.

Burton was the opposite of Hill, I thought—his George is almost sleepwalking, but he does manage to give the audience a glimpse into the seething cauldron of resentment he's carrying around. Sandy Dennis also won as Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Honey, and it propelled her career in film, even though she was a very peculiar actor.

Albee originally wanted James Mason and Bette Davis as George and Martha for the film. Even though they were both a decade older than the characters as written, I think Mason would've worked fine, but I wonder if Davis would have pushed it too far—by 1966, she was well into her horror hag period.

In 1978, Albee came to lecture at Notre Dame University, and this kid had the opportunity to get closer to the originator of the magnificent play that was such an obsession in my pre-teen years. He talked about his career and read selections from his plays, including "Virginia Woolf" and "The Zoo Story." Afterwards, I went backstage for an autograph. I think he was amused to see an 18-year-old kid so obsessed with his work.

Later, he directed "Woolf" for a production at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles. John Lithgow and Glenda Jackson played George and Martha, and Brian Kerwin and Cynthia Nixon were Nick and Honey. The kids were great, and Lithgow was spot-on, but Jackson was terrible. She played Martha as a staggering drunk, delivering many of her lines in a sing-songy voice. As a matter of fact, she ran frantically around the stage as if she thought she was still in one of her earlier Ken Russell films.

But back to Uta. She became a revered acting teacher and appeared occasionally on film and television. In 2000, the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles announced a production of "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks," starring David Hyde Pierce and Hagen, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to see Martha in person.

23 years after its debut, I finally saw "Virginia Woolf" on Broadway. Bill Irwin was George and Kathleen Turner was Martha. Turner was fine. She's got that natural growl anyhow, and she played off her former sexpot image. I saw it again in 2007 at the Ahmanson, so I've actually seen two productions of "Virginia Woolf" at the same theater.

Oh—I forgot to include the time I saw it at the tiny Firehouse Theatre in South Bend.

If I try hard enough, I think I can still recite George's "bergin" monologue from memory. Hey, if John Waters can have obsessions, so can I.

1 comment:

Russell Adams said...

I remember the first time I heard swearing on a record. It was Redd Foxx. Sadly, Redd's monologues lacked the literary quality of Edward Albee.

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