Taming the “Woolf”: A Conversation with Robert Smyth, Deborah Gilmour Smyth and Christy Yael-Cox

VW_ShowPage_Photo“This is a scary play to produce,” wrote Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey when the Chicago-based theatre company added Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to their 2010 Season, a production that would later go on to Broadway. “It is so well known and so respected and…etched in our cultural memory.”

The fact that this, one of playwright Edward Albee’s most famous stories, has attracted film and theatre giants from Uta Hagen to Elizabeth Taylor, Tracy Letts to Mercedes McCambridge, while also holding a somewhat notorious reputation as an angst-filled and alcohol-induced argument, would be enough to puzzle even the most daring of theatre directors. How does one unpack the gems that have built this play’s cornerstone status in the canon of American drama?

Director Christy Yael-Cox

Director Christy Yael-Cox

“This play is a fascinating psychological thriller,” says Intrepid Producing Artistic Director Christy Yael-Cox, who is directing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in guest residency at the Horton Grand Theatre beginning February 11. “It’s about figuring out where the truth lies, and to what extent people will go to hide it, manipulate it or destroy it altogether.”

The mystery of it slowly unravels during an evening at George and Martha’s house, where Nick and Honey – a young married couple new to the academic neighborhood of New Carthage – join the couple for drinks. George is an associate history professor at the nearby university where Martha’s father serves as president. Nick has recently been hired in the biology department.

As the couples get to know each other better, the fine line between social propriety and honest emotion becomes more and more blurry. Soon, Nick and Honey are part of the tangled web that George and Martha have been weaving long before their arrival that evening.

Deborah Gilmour Smyth as Martha

Deborah Gilmour Smyth as Martha

“These relationships can become caustically funny in a very human way,” says Christy. “George and Martha have been married for 23 years and much of that humor is uniquely specific to long-standing relationships. These characters push each other’s buttons in a very specific way. And we are right there, experiencing it moment for moment, along with the actors.”

In order to bring Albee’s riveting, real time tale of a casual nightcap gone awry, Christy knew she had to bring together a cast who could handle the tricky landscape of the brutally honest – both in what they bring to the stage and in the narratives of their characters.

Robert Smyth as George

Robert Smyth as George

Lamb’s Players Producing Artistic Director Robert Smyth and Associate Artistic Director Deborah Gilmour Smyth – longtime luminaries of the San Diego acting scene – will portray the lead characters of George and Martha. This show will mark the first time the married couple has been seen on stage together outside of the Lamb’s Players home. They will be joined onstage by Los Angeles-based actor Ross Hellwig as Nick and Intrepid Company Member Erin Petersen as Honey.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of the foundational pillars of the American theatre,” says Robert. “We have a fabulous director and a fabulous cast and we’re really excited about this.”

Which is not to say that the play doesn’t present a particular set of challenges, especially when a real husband and wife team portray an onstage couple.

“What I love about it, but is also very hard about it, is how painfully truthful George and Martha are together,” says Deborah. “It’s part of being human but you want to look at it from a distance. It’s very interesting to come at it from this direction, to say, I don’t choose to live this way personally because it would rip one apart, but I love being able to explore that side.”

Ross Hellwig as Nick

Ross Hellwig as Nick

“I’m so honored to be working with this incredibly talented company of actors,” says Christy. “They bring out the honesty of the characters, but they also find the levity, the fun and the raucous nature of their relationships. We root for them and hope they find what they are looking for, even as we watch them stumble and fall over and over again.”

Erin Petersen as Honey

Erin Petersen as Honey

While the dialogue of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? can captivate a crowd, it also challenges them to question – not only their own values and long-held beliefs – but also their own reactions to the narrative unfolding on stage. Is it okay to laugh? Is it okay to worry? Is it okay to identify with these characters? Can we afford not to?

“Ideally, a play should hold a mirror up to people,” Albee said once in an interview with Charlie Rose. “Maybe someone should be asking some questions about your values or the way you think about things. Maybe you should come out of a theatre with something having happened to you.”

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee. Directed by Christy Yael-Cox. Starring Robert Smyth and Deborah Gilmour Smyth. Featuring Ross Hellwig and Erin Petersen. Intrepid Theatre Company in Guest Residency at the Horton Grand Theatre. 444 Fourth Ave in downtown San Diego. February 11 – March 13. Tickets on sale now.

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