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THEATER REVIEW

Gamm Theatre’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ is a perfect coalescence of play, production, and performance

Edward Albee’s characters can be imbued with different weight and balance, if performers are willing to take the risk. Tony Estrella as George and Jeanine Kane as Martha serve up some bold creative choices.

From left, Jeanine Kane, Tony Estrella, Gunnar Manchester, and Gabrielle McCauley in the Gamm Theatre’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in Warwick, R.I., through Feb. 25.Cat Laine

WARWICK, R.I. — The only thing missing from Gamm Theatre’s otherwise perfect production of Edward Albee’s 1962 drama “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is a designated splash zone to protect those in the first few rows from the flying gin, spewing insults, and shrapnel from shattered egos and broken vows. But then, being in the crossfire of George and Martha’s psychological warfare, intense verbal abuse, and what amounts to some of the best writing in the American theater is half the fun. The other half is discovering just what kind of George, Martha, Nick, and Honey will show up on stage.

The Tony award-winning play begins as George, a middle-aged associate professor of history at a small New England college, and his wife Martha return home at 2 a.m., familiarly drunk from a Saturday night faculty party. Much to George’s displeasure, Martha has invited a strapping, opportunistic young assistant professor of biology and his mousey wife to their home for a nightcap. Over the course of the next few hours, George and Martha ply Nick and Honey with alcohol and use them as pawns, props, and cannon fodder in increasingly punishing, progressively cruel, and highly manipulative mind games that confuse truth with illusion.

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George and Martha have labeled these games “Humiliate the Hosts,” “Get the Guests,” and “Hump the Hostess.” It all amounts to a marvelously orchestrated display of schadenfreude, the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others, of which there is plenty in this production for the characters and the audience.

Key to a successful “Virginia Woolf” is having a gritty, foul-mouthed Martha who can unleash violent rants and merciless barbs, emasculate George and Nick while seducing them, and then earnestly bare her frailty and deep-rooted self-loathing. Equally important is having a pathetic George wallow in his own mediocrity and fold under Martha’s hard-hitting humiliation, only to match her fury with bitter arrogance, astute intelligence, and a keen eye on her tender soft spots.

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And yet, despite the definitive portrayals of George and Martha turned in by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1966 film version of the play, the characters are adjustable templates that can be imbued with different weight and balance if performers are willing to take the risk. The humor, too, can be modulated in accordance to each production’s artistic vision. The work is one thing on the page; it can — in tone, temperament, and timing — be another on the stage. On this stage, under Steve Kidd’s superb, forward-moving direction, Gamm Artistic Director Tony Estrella as George and Jeanine Kane as Martha serve up some bold creative choices.

In so many other productions (it is impossible to see plays for a living and not witness numerous stagings of this classic work), George starts out stymied — no, suffocated — by Martha when the couple is decompressing after coming home from the party and when Nick and Honey show up at the door. He typically phases in and out of this state throughout most of the play. But here, Estrella’s George is energized upon the entrance of the late-night guests, is more present, responsive, funny, and interesting from that moment on, and makes it clear that he will be giving it as good as he gets. The actor downshifts to submissiveness and dissociation only when the playwright’s words demand it. And, even then, Estrella’s silent George is still engaged and actively listening, absorbing.

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In short, this “Virginia Woolf?” is as much George’s story as Martha’s. And yet, this does not take anything away from what Kane brings to the table, for her Martha is as spirited and terrifyingly complicated as she is compelling. And her portrayal of a broken Martha at the play’s end, and the journey it took to get there, is absolutely spellbinding.

As for the young guests, Gunnar Manchester and Gabrielle McCauley have no trouble making their smaller, arguably underwritten roles as interesting and evocative as the leads. They fight the tendency to simply have their characters watch the emotional pendulum swinging before them and, instead, allow them to ride that pendulum with convincing inebriation, palpable consternation, and mounting outrage. They are never merely in the background.

Jessica Hill Kidd’s cluttered set displays a once fashionable 1950s living room that purposefully seems out of date in a play taking place in the 1960s. Its busy wallpaper, mismatched dark wood furnishings, uninspiring artwork, and lack of windows creates a palpable sense of confinement and oppression, which is what this play calls for. All this is nicely complemented by Jeff Adelberg’s lighting design, which is particularly effective in underscoring important moments during key monologues. Character-defining and period-perfect costuming comes courtesy of David T. Howard.

Nearly 20 years ago, this newspaper claimed that the Gamm was a “buzz-generating theater” that offered epic shows in an intimate space. It still is. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is a perfect coalescence of play, production, and performance that — for the next few weeks at least — makes Warwick a go-to destination for theater lovers.

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WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF

Play by Edward Albee. Directed by Steve Kid. At the Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick. Extended through Feb. 25. Tickets $25-$60, including fees. 401-723-4266, gammtheatre.org.

Bob Abelman is an award-winning theater critic who formerly wrote for the Austin Chronicle. Connect with him on Facebook.

This story has been updated.