Facing the Fear :: Steven Barkhimer and Dan Whelton on 'Virginia Woolf'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday January 13, 2017

Of all the noteworthy plays the late Edward Albee created, perhaps his best known is the landmark work "Who's Afraid go Virginia Woolf," a dizzying four-hander in which two married couples fall into one another's orbits one late, drunken night and enter into a kind of hazy, temporary madness.

Across three acts -- each with its own title; "Fun and Games," "Walpurgisnacht," and "The Exorcism" -- the play tears into the psyches of its characters in an unforgiving manner. Sexual tensions, resentments, and cocktails litter the wee hours of this long night's journey into hell.

The older couple are George and Martha. He's an associate professor of modest achievements and no great ambition; she's the daughter of the university president, and her ambitions focus more on what she wants George to accomplish than on what she might do with her own life. The fact that it's 1962 -- an era hardly hospitable toward the careers of women -- certainly plays a part in that, but Martha herself has certain deficiencies that cannot be overlooked.

The younger couple, who accept an invitation for a post-faulty gathering nightcap, are Nick and Honey. Nick is a professor, also -- a full professor at his tender age -- and his field is biology. Both his youthful good looks and the Freudian associations that she makes with his field of expertise trigger salacious behavior toward the young man on Martha's part, despite the fact that Nick's sweet wife, Honey, is right there... sort of. Honey, like the rest of the characters, has her own particular favorite drink, and she partakes liberally as the hours pass by.

The older couple may be more of a train wreck -- they've had longer to stew in their unhappiness and devise the intricate emotional blood sports they engage in -- but the two youngsters are no model of marital happiness themselves. (So much for youthful love and the bliss of the so-called salad days!) As the play unwinds, so do painful observations about couples, age, work, and love.

Last month, EDGE had a chance to chat with Psyche Drama Company's founding Artistic Director, Wendy Lippe, about their production of the play; Dr. Lippe also played the role of Martha. Now, thanks to the fortuitous timing of the Lyric Stage Company's mounting of the play, your correspondent has had the chance to catch up with both Steven Barkhimer, who plays George, and Dan Whelton, who plays Nick, to get "the guys' perspective" on Albee's classic. Not that the ladies are not just as well represented: This cast is a dream, since Barkhimer and Whelton will be sharing the Lyric stage with Paula Plum, who plays Martha, and Erica Spyres, who plays Honey. The cast will be under the direction of Scott Edmiston.


EDGE: The Psych Drama Company recently had a production of 'Virginia Woolf,' and it seems timely to have not just one, but two productions of this play, given that Edward Albee died just this past September.

Steven Barkhimer: We heard just as we were about to go into rehearsal.

Dan Whelton: It's interesting, yeah. As we were preparing to get into rehearsals for the production, we heard the news and we were wondering if that would have any effect on what the awareness of the play would be. I don't know if it has or not, but there's a bit of a buzz going on around town because the production is happening. I'd think that there is [heightened interest] because he's such an important playwright and contributor.

EDGE: How did you become involved with this particular production that's going up at the Lyric?

Dan Whelton: The Lyric Stage Company holds audition every year, and I've auditioned there ever since I've been an actor in Boston. Every time there's a chance to put my hat in the ring for something they're doing, I jump at it.

Steven Barkhimer: I was, I think, on Scott Edmiston's, the director's, radar. I had some auditions, and I was lucky enough to be gifted with the role. It's really a kind of a dream. There are roles that I would be happy to reprise, and there are roles I will probably never do -- but this is one I instantly... I've been thinking about this play for decades. It arrested me even as a child, way before I could understand what was going on. I caught the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton film on television one obscure afternoon as a kid, and I didn't know what I was watching, but I couldn't not watch it. I was riveted. I just thought it was so weird and, even then, bitterly funny -- though I didn't realize how bitter.

EDGE: It is the sort of play that you don't have to be a kid to find puzzling. Even as an adult you can be at something of a loss... unless you're an adult who's been through some unfortunate relationship experiences, you really might not know what to make of it.

Steven Barkhimer: I think one of the funniest lines in the show is when the Nick character goes, 'I think I understand this!'

[Laughter]

EDGE: So how do you approach this material now, yourself?

Steven Barkhimer: There are lots of points of intersection with me and George. We're sort of bookwormish, and I have enough repressed resentments and enough loss in my life to be able to appreciate that; I've been married, I've been involved in academia, I've nourished illusions that I've had to bring out into the open and face... there's a lot of research I've been doing for forty years. I hadn't thought of it that way, but all of that comes into play. He's a different man than I am, but there's a lot to go on. Albee's written a really shrewd portrait. It's a surreal atmosphere, I suppose, but in a very real [way]. The people [in the play] are real to me.

EDGE: Dan, do you find there are similarities between yourself and Nick?

Dan Whelton: Some of the similarities I think that I have with the character... I think we have a similar sense of humor, from what I've seen, and a similar take on a situation; I mean, there's a lot of emotional and physical states that are going on in the play, so to say 'The person is like this during the play' is a little bit too much like saying 'I'm feeling like this today,' or 'I'm feeling like this this week.' Obviously, a lot of different things are going through your mind and your body at any time during the day. But whenever I have an idea of something that's going to bring me to do a certain thing, a motivation or an idea, when I'm outside the rehearsal room, then I bring it into the room and talk about it with the director. That's part of the collaboration, and one of the great things about working in theater, working with a team, where you can say, 'I'd like to try something new, I've had this idea,' and they either will say 'Let's talk about it first,' or 'Let's just do it and see where it brings us.' In a great collaboration like this -- Scott Edmiston's a wonderful director who's always happy to hear an idea -- the best idea in the room wins.

EDGE: As you've been rehearsing this, taking feedback from the director and interacting with your fellow cast members, you must have gained more understanding into these people than even you had when you went into this project, after thinking about it for decades.

Steven Barkhimer: You really don't know that a play is about until it happens in space and time. I've always told students how very hard it is to read a play. I used examples like, You're reading Shakespeare, you're rolling along in a monologue, and then its say, 'They fight; Hotspur falls.' And then they keep talking! So it's hard to sit down and imagine the impact that moment, which takes up a couple of words in a stage direction. That could be an entire fight scene. A whole thing on the page just whips by, but until a play elapses in real time you don't know what's going on. For an actor or a director or any of the production crew, it comes to life in a way you couldn't have imagined, and you haven't with those associates before, so I go out there with Paula Plum and Dan Welton and Erica Spyres, and they're all terrific and generous and thoughtful people, and really intelligent. And Scott is a brilliant and very sensitive, and impressively articulate, director. It's been dense work, but it's a real - there are revelations all over the place when you're actually trying to put it in its feet and get the book out of your hand.

EDGE Bringing a play to life is always an exercise in interpretation, but I understand Albee was quite controlling -- or perhaps possessive -- of his material, and quite particular about how it should be staged.

Steven Barkhimer: He was very, very proprietary about how, and even who, could do his plays. He legendarily insisted on approving casts, using their photos and resumes if he didn't see them in person; and very particular about what editions of the scripts -- like, if he updated a script, he'd say, 'No, I'm sorry, this is the definitive version.' That has been respected to a degree that -- I mean, people fear lawsuits, and I'm sure the estate will be just as vigilant.

He's been known to be very prickly, the same was that Beckett went into a fury when the A.R.T. put up a production of his 'End Game' in a post-apocalyptic subway station.

[Laughter]

And the A.R.T. got to do the performance anyway, but they agreed to include a disclaimer in the program that said he did not approve of the production.

Dan Whelton: The constraints that are imposed are generally on the production, so while it's definitely there for the actor it's not as much felt by the actor, so that the decisions that are made - from what I've been told - that are affected by those constraints are you have to cast a certain way, which is a decision that's made before the actors are brought in. And the production design, the set design, the costume design, the concept of the production all have to be realistic.

Constraints that are put in say that you can't set it in different times; you can't put it in a different place, it has to be in a living room in 1962. The thing that directly affects the actors is you can't make any cuts, and so no matter what it's going to be a two hour and forty-five minute, or maybe three-hour, play. It's interesting to know that everybody who's done it before is doing it in the same way, though obviously no two directors are going to have the same voice; even though it's realistic, it's not going to be the same interpretation, just as the same words said by different people will have a different ring. It's unique; I've never dealt with another production where there's so much control over the production by the playwright. That puts a different spin on it.

EDGE: Does the script specify things about how the lines are said, or what the characters' thought and attitudes are as they say the lines?

Dan Whelton: Absolutely, yeah, he does. Those things are not so much in the script; they are in italics, so they aren't necessarily things you have to say. It's advice from the playwright that you should listen to, whether or not you choose to follow it: 'This is the way that they say it, without any inflection, without any intonation. He says this coolly, without caring about the other person.' He gives you an idea of what the character's point of view is, or their emotional state; little clues to help guide the way, and figure out what's going on underneath, so they're definitely helpful.

EDGE: Does this make it easier in any way, to have those restrictions? Does that give shape to the play for you, or does it turn the project into a labyrinth and a minefield?

Steven Barkhimer: For me, I rather admire that [proprietary] sense. As you said, once you start working on a play, there's no way not to be interpreting it. These are characters that came out of Albee's head onto paper, and playwriting perforce is a collaborative enterprise. It's impossible to have actors not interpret it. That's not only their duty, I's a practical necessity. You cannot do it perfectly; there is no perfectly correct thing to do. We're all different people, and playwrights understand that when they hand over their scripts. So, there's gotta be latitude. And a number of very different people have played the roles, with his blessing, or consent, or what have you, people as varied a Burton and Mel Irwin and Tracy Letts. And the Marthas have been very different, from Elaine Stritch and Kathleen Turner -- it had to be different.

EDGE: As you're doing the rehearsal and immersing yourself more into the role -- and also creating a dynamic with the other actors -- are those signposts something that gel and make sense to you? Or do you find they present contradictions within your understanding of the characters and the situation that you have to find ways to reconcile?

Dan Whelton: It depends. They're not necessarily contradictions, but they are signposts, saying, 'This is the way the car is supposed to go down this road.' But sometimes you say, 'This isn't the route I was planning on taking,' so you figure out what that plan is and how to fit it to your route in order to make sure that you get to the right destination. I guess because it's in italics and it's a suggestion, if it's something that's in complete contradiction with what I think, or we, the company of actors and director, that we all think is something that's going to get in our way, then because it's an internal thing we're not breaking any rules by saying a line in a different way. So we can say, 'This is in contrast to what I think it is,' we can talk about it and make sure everybody's on the same page. If we think we have a valid choice that goes a different way, then there's no reason not to go with a different valid choice.

EDGE: So, to extend that metaphor, are there times you feel that a whole unexpected vista comes into view because you're been following those signposts that Albee laid out for you?

Dan Whelton: Of course! Yeah, absolutely. That's one of the big parts of the process, trying to figure out what the playwright is trying to say so that we can bring it to life on stage. When he's guiding you, it's a whole other voice in the room. Whenever you're having a debate about something having another voice is going to bring the play to a different place.

EDGE: Do you feel there's a very different perspective between what the men are going through, versus what the women are going through, in this play?

Steven Barkhimer: Yeah, it's definitely a lot. I do, and yet... One reason I say that immediately is the characters themselves often posit their problems in terms of gender. Granted, the play takes place in 1962, which is one of the things, again, Albee was very insistent on -- although I just read an interview he did, where he says something like, "Oh, it really annoys me when directors get too worried about the fact that it's got to be 1962." At any rate, when the play was written - I mean, it might seen quaint or weird on the stage today if people put things in terms of ... they have conversations that are explicitly like, 'I wonder what women talk about when the men aren't around.' And the women say the same thing: 'Did you men settle all the problems of the world while we were out of the room?' I think that's one of the things Albee was bringing up quite intentionally, too, because it drove him crazy. Nick implies to George that he and Honey played doctor when they were young, and George's response it, 'Well, that's a good, healthy, heterosexual beginning.'

[Laughter]

You can just see Albee sticking his chisel in all of these issues.

EDGE: You can sort of see why he refused to allow that infamous gay version of the play to go forward.

Steven Barkhimer: Yeah, he said, 'No, no, no. George is a man, Martha's a woman. It's this marriage in this [setting].' Even in 1962 has a little leeway to it, it's that world that he's, I don't know, condemning and anatomizing. And I think there could be a great production like that, but I don't know if it's going to happen any time soon. Or, if it does, it'll be on the sly, or on the fringe. I can't imagine the estate saying, 'Oh, that's great.'

EDGE: One thing I have always wondered about is what, exactly, Nick and Honey don't just get up and leave. Things start getting weird, but they stick around long past when you feel like most people would have called it a night.

Dan Whelton: Yeah... that is the eternal question that you always ask why do they stay? There are a lot of justifications. We can't ask Albee anymore; maybe he said somewhere. There are a lot of clues in there. Based on what the characters say, you can interpret what Nick wants and what Honey wants.

There are physical restrictions; when Honey is upstairs in the bathroom vomiting, Nick isn't going to walk out the door. You don't do that. Why do they come [to George and Martha's home] in the first place? Well, there's ambition. If you have the idea that you can get a promotion or get ahead in a professional career by being at this party at this time, then you're going to take every opportunity that you can. In the beginning when things are a little bit awkward, [you can imagine Nick thinking] 'We'll stay; we can't humiliate these people by abandoning them. We'll just ignore this uncomfortable situation until it gets worse.' [But] once you get in an hour and a half into this horrible situation, and your wife is sleeping on the couch and the host of the party is in a different room, it's -- you have this deal where it's, Are you going to finish this drink? Then, Are you going to have another one? I'll leave when this drink is done, or I'm going to leave in the middle of this drink... these are how we deal with situations in real life, and then we ask ourselves, 'How did I find myself where I am? How did I let this happen?' These are all problems that happen to everybody. At the end of the night you go home: 'Why did I take that whole torture fest that happened to me?'

There's always a reason for it, but when you're in the middle of it, it's not as easy to walk out of the room even if you're getting tortured. When you're having an argument with somebody and you want the last word, you know it would be easier if you stop fighting and just let them have the last word. You know that you're wrong just to keep going. These are emotional responses that happen in life, and that's what Albee has really done, has brought life to a play. That's why people talk about it so much and people still [produce] it. It feels real enough.

Steven Barkhimer: I think if you ask each of the cast members and the director, you'd get different answers [from each of them]. And, of course, the actors have to answer it for themselves, and I'm neither one of the ones who stay, but I can imagine for myself. There are situations that you wind up inside of too much before you realize that you're somehow include din it. And there are also events that... like watching a car wreck, things that hold your attention by their mere... I sometimes think mere incredulity holds us spellbound.

[Laughter]

Like, 'Who's house have we been invited into? What is going on? Is this a big joke, or is this the worst marriage I've ever seen? Is this dangerous?'

And, there are things they want, too. Nick is climbing the ladder; he's just come to a new place; it's the president [of the university]'s daughter. 'Do I stay and earn points? Do I leave and possibly burn a bridge?' It's a very good question, and I don't have an answer for it.

EDGE: George and Martha have what amounts to an extraordinarily intimate, complicated, and maybe even erotic game that they are playing -- though maybe the erotic element is more of an emotional and intellectual one. Obviously, they have to stay embroiled in the situation, with or without Nick and Honey; it seems like their entire relationship is bound up in it.

Steven Barkhimer: Martha still at least has what shows up as a very active and hungry libido, and George -- I think that's part of what George has to deal with. That's become part of the Martha that Martha has partially created, and partially what she is constitutionally. She's a very sexually oriented person. George continually suggests that she's vulgar, randy, and she turns it into either an asset, or something that is meant to challenge George. The young couple is also very much sexual pawns in this game, and it's never clear if there's real attraction between certain people, or whether it's there and this is all part of the process of negotiating it as candidly as we can.

EDGE There's this intense and even alarming intimacy we see between George and Martha in this game they play. By participating in that, are Nick and Honey drawn, in some perverse way, into the game? Or do they stick around because they want to see where this horrible thing that they are witnessing ends up?

Dan Whelton: The train wreck, the [impulse toward] watching something horrible happen in front of you, is probably one of the things that keeps them watching. But ultimately, all of these answers come from just watching it. Why did they stay? Hopefully, that's something the audience will talk about as they walk out. That's what you want from theater, is to have people talking about it when they walk out. Art wants you to talk about it.

EDGE: Steven, aside from Martha, your character, George, spends the most time interacting with Nick. What is their relationship all about? Is there some sort of competition going on? Is there a mentoring relationship that's developing? Is there a nostalgia that the younger man provokes in George?

Steven Barkhimer: I think every one of those is true, and that it varies from point to point. There are points where George feels actually threatened by a younger, potent, good-looking fellow in a discipline -- namely, biology -- that he doesn't know much about. His vision of biology is very [apprehensive]. It still kind of holds now, but in the '60s the thought was, 'Oh, they're messing with the genes; there's gonna be "Brave New World"; everyone's going to be a Nazi.' And [for George it's also] 'This young guy who my wife is bringing over because he's god looking and virile...' I think George is serious when he says that Nick is a threat to [him].

But there are other times when I think George really tries to advise him. 'You know what? This is a small college, and you could get dragged down if you're not careful. I'm trying to give you a survival kit!' He says this at one point, but by then it's misconstrued as condescension... or, maybe it's not misconstrued! We still have a couple weeks to go before the play goes up, so we still have time to find out.

Dan Whelton: Depending on what moment [you reference] in the play, I think there is an attempted guidance where George is trying to teach things to Nick, who potentially resents it or who is mocking it; and there's also the idea that whenever you get two couples together the men will leave the room together, or the women will leave the room together and the men are left together -- especially in 1962, when it was a different society. The women would go off and they would sit up; and the men would sit in the drawing room, and they would talk; and so whether they chose to be in this situation, this is where they are. I think Nick [accepts Martha's invitation] because Martha is the daughter of the president, and George just happens to be there. So when Nick is there for Martha, and Martha is out of the room, he's stuck with George. He has to make it work as best he can in order to get what he wants out of the evening.

EDGE: Dan, what's it like to have this creative and interpretive process between you and Steve Barkhimer? Are you guys having a ball?

Dan Whelton: Oh, it's incredible. It's so much fun, it really is. He's such a smart, unique guy; he's so much fun to work with -- generous on stage and off, and so willing to try new things. He's always bringing excitement and truth and electricity to the readings we do, the run-throughs and the work-throughs. It's stimulating and fun and exciting -- a perfect example of why I like to do theater.

Steven Barkhimer: It's exhausting, but it's also invigorating. And all of these people [on the cast], and Scott [the director] are continually bringing... sometimes rehearsals are as gratifying as performance, or even more so. I know some people who prefer rehearsals to performance, actually, because attentive actors and directors are always asking questions of the material as it goes in, as opposed to setting down a mold and saying, 'Okay, each rehearsal will be a more approximately correct version of what we've already decided.' As it you were asymptotically approaching some ideal that you pre-established. But rehearsal is more like someone will have an impulse, and sometimes it will be remarkably grounded and vivid and new, and everyone will have to react to it and say, 'That's an entirely valid way to react.' And sometimes, you know, you do something, and five seconds later you go, 'Ahhh, that kinda sucked.'

[Laughter]

I think that's why so few people are invited to rehearsals for many, many shows -- it feels like there's got to be a safe space to go wrong in ways that are more personally revealing than many people would want. Or moments for everyone just to stop dead and say, 'Wait a minute -- what is going on here?' Or just plough through it, and see what emerges.

EDGE: Is this the first time you've worked together?

Dan Whelton: It is. We'd met before -- Boston is a small theater community -- just boats crossing in the night, and then we met again a little but more in depth at the audition. We auditioned as a group, all four of us. This is the first time I've gotten tow work with him in close contact, and I haven't been disappointed.

EDGE: You mean the you and Steve and Erica Spyres and Paula Plum all had an audition together? Was that something that the play's producers had planned? They liked you chemistry and so they had you as a group already in mind?

Dan Whelton: We did read together. I'd think there's too much randomness for that to have happened by accident. He [Scott Edmiston] probably thought that we would make a good cast and wanted to see if we were the cast he would want. That's a director question. But we did all audition together, yes.

EDGE: Steven, it sounds as if George was one of those bucket list roles for you. Now that you're doing this, what remains on that bucket list?

Steven Barkhimer: I think there are a couple roles in Chekhov I should do, but I'm not inclined to self-produce, and it's a lot of work, so who knows if I'll ever get to do them. If this were the last role I did, I would not be unhappy. This is, in a way, it's perfect. I don't know if I would have cast me as George, but having been cast in the role I am thrilled. I cannot think of something that would be more satisfying to do.

EDGE: Be careful what you say there, Steve. 2016 has not been a kind year to creative types.

Steven Barkhimer: I know, I know!

[Laughter]

If ten years from now somebody says, 'Are you ready for Lear?' I'm not going to say, 'Well, no, not really -- I've always done George.'


The Lyric Stage Company's production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" runs through Feb. 12. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.lyricstage.com/productions/production.cfm?ID=122

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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