Photo by Paul Hayashi
By Jack Lyons Theatre and Film Critic. Member of American Theatre Critics Association

The beauty of theatre, as opposed to film, lies in its ability to present to its audiences a fresh approach to each and every performance night and after night. No two performances are ever the same. As the enjoyment of the stage genre grows and matures the more the actors and artists ramp up their performance magic.

Film is a different medium. It’s a cousin of the theatre in that it’s also a creative, artistic, and a powerful art form. But it doesn’t have the ability to ‘breathe’, or to be continually in the moment. Unlike the stage, film is frozen warts and all, in a celluloid time capsule. If the movie misses the mark for its audiences there is no changing a flaw or incorporating the director’s new input for tomorrow screenings.

The Palm Canyon Theatre (PCT) is presenting a four performance only production of Edward Albee’s iconic, Tony Award-winning play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, directed by Michael Pacas, that stars Yo Younger as Martha, Richard Marlow as George, Phylicia Mason as Honey and Sean Timothy Brown as Nick.

Albee is a three time Pulitzer winning playwright, considered to be one of the five most influential American playwrights of the twentieth century along with Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams. Pretty heady company. All of whom are installed the Pantheon of American literature.

Of the five playwrights Albee is the most controversial and the most theatrically provocative. His stories are designed to force the audience to reexamine their previously held tenets. “All my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done” adding, “I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.” he opined in a 1991 New York Times interview.

In another interview with “The Guardian” newspaper in 2004 Albee stated “the job of the writer is to hold up a mirror to people” echoing with a twist, the philosophy of fellow playwright and author Bertolt Brecht, who forcefully penned the quote, “Art is not just a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.”

Albee has certainly hammered his offbeat subject matter material over the years, with such plays as: “Zoo Story”, the enigmatic “Tiny Alice, whom many said was too confusing to understand, and “The Goat, or who is Sylvia?” his most provocative and controversial play about love, marriage and sexual mores. And of course, his masterpiece and crown jewel in his canon “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, which I saw last week at The Palm Canyon Theatre; who are best known for their highly successful musical theatre productions.

Albee’s scabrous play centers around a middle aged married couple, George and Martha whose vitriolic verbal battles are defined by hyperbolic bitter exchanges, which underlies what seems like an emotional dependence upon each other. Their verbal abuse toward one another is fueled by an excessive consumption of nature’s truth serum – alcohol.

The story in short, revolves around George (Richard Marlow in a finely judged nuanced star turn) and Martha (played by Yo Younger in a tour de force performance, who recently nabbed two acting trophies at the Desert Theatre League Desert Stars Awards) both of whom should be in therapy but aren’t. George an associate History professor in New Carthage University where Martha’s father is the President adds spice and irony, and an extra dimension to their “no holds barred” vituperative relationship, where in truth, each needs the other.

Late one Saturday evening after a faculty mixer Martha invites Nick an ambitious young Biology professor and hunk (played by Sean Timothy Brown) who is new to the university and his timid wife Honey (Phylicia Mason) over for a nightcap. As the evening progresses, Nick and Honey, George and Martha all of whom have consumed more alcohol than the law legally allows to drive a car, get caught up in George and Martha’s ‘games’ of needing to hurt each other and everyone around them.

The ultimate abuse comes in the form of dialogue regarding George and Martha’s unseen sixteen year-old son, whose birthday is the following day. The story and plot is well known to the world, thanks to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s tempestuous “private lifestyle” that went public; mimicking the play’s characters in the eponymous movie of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, starring Burton and Taylor.

But no additional spoiler alerts here. Besides, the audience is seeing the play through the staging lenses of director Michael Pacas, who pretty much hews to Albee’s original dialogue along with some twists of his own. For example, Pacas has divided Albee’s original three act play into two acts without altering Albee’s dramatic intention. The PCT production is a visceral snapshot of one couples’ version of domesticity.

In the technical department PCT’s solid creative team led by director Pacas includes: Scenic Designer Kirsten Cunningham, Lighting Designer J.W. Layne, and Costume Designer Derik Shopinski.

The best way to sum up this high energy play of American domesticity is to borrow a line from the 1950 Academy Award winning 20th Century Fox movie “All About Eve”, where Bette Davis utters the now classic line to her party guests, “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” What a delicious understatement!

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, is an impressive production that performs at the Palm Canyon Theatre in Palms Springs, and runs through October 21st. Call the box office for ticket information at 760-323-5123.