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Beyond the Farm: We're All Afraid of Virginia Woolf

man and woman acting on a stage

For this issue of Beyond the Farm, we hear from Tom Freeland about his work beyond the Oral Communications Program -- in this case as the director for a student production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Last Fall quarter a student in my Voice Workshop class approached me with a request to direct her and her friends in a production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I had worked with this student before, in summer productions with the Stanford Repertory Theatre, run by TAPS Professor Rush Rehm, so I was happy to accept the invitation. Virginia Woolf is not remotely my favorite play, but these young actors quickly made me a believer. Their energy, discipline and creativity took my breath away at every rehearsal. I have acted on and off all my life, and SRT affords me frequent opportunities to perform here on campus, but this was the first directing I had done in many years. I hope more such projects will come along now.

Below are some notes I wrote up as a kind of mission statement for the production, at least to warn the actors about where I was coming from as their director.

  • Cruelty, we scarce will admit to ourselves, can be fun. It can be a game, a set of games, a tournament of torments. Cruelty is the only fun George and Martha have left. It’s what keeps them together, what keeps them active and alive.
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a car-crash staged live for our eager discomfort. I’m curious about what drives George and Martha to go this far on this night. Why now? Why with this particular captive audience?
  • Honey comes off like a Christian being fed to the lions. Nick might be a Roman guard herding her into the arena. Maybe he enjoys the spectacle. George and Martha are very very hungry. Christians are tasty—it’s all good.
  • I once saw two cats with a mouse trapped between them. The poor creature would try to escape; one cat would seize it in her teeth, toss it up in the air, bat it with her paws, and serve it over to the other cat, who would then repeat the process. I watched for a few minutes and then rescued the mouse, shooing the cats away and turning the mouse loose a few hundred yards away. I’ve no doubt they captured it again without delay and resumed their sport.
  • What this production needs is a relentless onward momentum, a reckless stepping-on-the-gas plunge off the cliff. Each word, each glance must ratchet up the tension, must raise the stakes. I want audience members to find their breath held, their fists tightening, their teeth clenching as George and Martha go all-in. Everyone pushes more chips onto the pile—I see your indiscreet sharing of our secrets with a stranger and raise you one yawning Whatever as you take the stranger upstairs to tear his clothes off. This is strip poker, but not with clothes being taken off; George and Martha are flaying each other alive. Each word, each glance takes off a bit more skin.
  • Nick and Honey start as awkward looky-loos, staring at the wreckage as they drive by slowly, but to their own surprise they stop, get out, and allow themselves to be pulled into the event. A kind of Stockholm syndrome sets in as they keep not leaving. They are a willing captive audience. Are they afforded a forward look into the rancid marriage of their future? Is there any escape?
  • George and Martha have turned into their own ghosts while still this side of the grave. Like Marley haunting Scrooge, they have forged chains of their own regrets and now drag them along everywhere they go, maddening themselves and everyone around them with the awful clanking. Birthday number fifty (or so) is a ripe time to look at oneself and wonder when was my life supposed to start? Why did these last twenty years happen to me instead?
  • This play is a foul hybrid of Ibsen and Updike, a cautionary tale of people who should have read Salinger when it still could have saved them. Instead they have watched their own transformation into precisely the toxic phonies that they must have delighted in seeing Holden Caulfield condemn.
  • Nick fascinates and horrifies Martha because he is just what Daddy would have wanted for her, what she would have wanted for herself. But we are defined by our true desires, and more often than we’d like to admit we get what we deserve. There was a time when she wanted George—she wants him still, th’uncertain sickly appetite to please. And she doesn’t like what this seems to say about her.
  • Honey is a rabbit cornered by a fox, hypnotizing herself to dull the pain and wishing the fox would just get on with it and eat her. A Nick is a small wound; Honey is sticky-sweet. Martha is a superfund Earth-mother; George is a Father without a Country. They have made a living-room into a life raft, and they’re playing Russian Roulette to see who gets pushed off first.
  • Game after game they play, and they all cheat mercilessly. Goalposts exist to be shifted.
  • “I swear… if you existed I’d divorce you…”
  • If audience members squint just a bit, the set will turn into a boxing ring (Nick was a college champeen!), with punch-drunk fighters in all four corners. No one will throw in the towel; no one will relent or beg for mercy. Eat the wounded.
  • It is sometimes noted that in war soldiers will speak of The Enemy with remarkable little rancor. They save their hatred for better-known quantities: their own officers, the screw-ups in their own platoon. Hate is a type of intimacy. Real hate might require intimacy.
  • George, Martha, Nick and Honey are, in the end, petty people with petty problems. But their rage is grand and extravagant, rich and varied. They are connoisseurs of slights and small hurts. Each inflicts on the other a death of a thousand cuts, and each prays they will not be the first to bleed out.

Below are some additional pictures from the performance, by Frank Chen. Credits: Fiona Maguire as Martha; Jake Goldstein as George; Jack Seigenthaler as Nick; Emma Rothenberg as Honey.

a couple from Virginia Woolf performance by Frank Chen
performers in Virginia Woolf performance
woman on couch from Virginia Woolf performance

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