Marriage is psychological warfare in 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'

"I'll rip you to pieces."

"You're not man enough. You haven't the guts."

"Total war."


Yes, "Virginia," there is a marriage clause.

Yours, perhaps penned by Elvis, reads: "Don't be cruel."

Advice not taken, apparently.

"It's strong, it's weak, it's funny, it's hurtful, it's kind, it's abrasive, it gives you everything," says director Deanne Grace. "It's a lot to take in."

Absorbing antagonism is the lifeblood of Edward Albee's landmark exercise in mortal marital combat, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Mounted by Theatre in the Valley, a traveling troupe still in search of a home base, the verbal bloodletting spills over for six performances at the Henderson Convention Center beginning tonight, with another scheduled at Sun City MacDonald Ranch.

What are you in for?

"I've been drinking since 9 o'clock, my wife is vomiting, there's been a lot of screaming."

Kick back, relax, revel in the acrimony of matrimony (nearly three hours of it over three acts) from the 1962 classic denied that year's Pulitzer Prize for drama for its cussin' and sex talk -- "Screwed!" "Hump the hostess!" -- when it was the '60s on the calendar but still the '50s in the culture.

Albee's title, a takeoff on the song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" but subbing in the famous English novelist's name as a literate reference, dovetails with the highbrow, New England campus setting.

Shattering any veneer of Ivy League propriety, miserably married Martha, daughter of the college president, and George, an associate history professor, invite new professor Nick and his mousy wife, Honey, over for a pleasant evening. ... Poor fools.

Unfolding over a night of connubial vitriol, George and Martha swill booze and scathingly tear into each other verbally, and even physically, in front of their alternately appalled and fascinated guests -- who themselves become occasional targets of the abuse.

"It's like a ping-pong match for us, we're going back and forth between George and Martha," says Anthony Avery, who plays Nick (Jamie Jones plays Honey). "Then we become the ball."

Games -- in the form of nasty attacks -- are played out, with names such as "Get the Guests," "Fun and Games," "Bringing Up Baby" and, yes, "Hump the Hostess."

"Look, sweetheart, I can drink you under any goddamn table you want."

"It's more emotionally risky than a lot of stuff that's current, the depth of misery these people are wearing on their sleeve," says Anne Davis Mulford, portraying the blowsy, man-eating Martha, the role so vividly inhabited by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1966 movie (opposite then-husband Richard Burton), whose character is -- how to describe her? -- voluptuous sexuality gone to hell.

"That's a great description," Mulford says. "I've been that in my real life."

"You're a monster."

"I'm loud and I'm vulgar and I wear the pants in the house because somebody's got to."

"Divorce was so taboo at that time that you got married and you were stuck," says Alex Pink, portraying beaten-down but still combative George.

"This is how they have it out -- 'I'm unhappy, you're unhappy, let's see how far we can push it.' George still loves Martha, but he's at his wit's end on what to do to fix the rips and tears in their relationship. He resigns himself to playing the game and finding new ways to one-up his spouse."

Though at times, Pink says, "Martha does find a way to put his (testicles) in her purse."

"You make me puke."

Yet balance of power does seesaw over the night in a psychological wrestling match, she attempting to humiliate him on a gut level, he responding with more intellectually calculated -- but no less devastating -- savagery.

Hurling invective at each other, it becomes apparent that this damaged duo feeds off a bizarre, antagonistic co-dependence.

"You're going bald."

"So are you."

"To view Martha as an emasculating bitch and George as the poor, servile husband is a very superficial reading of the play," says Mulford. "He devours her just as much as she does him. It gives their marriage life. It's the gasoline they run on."

Ultimately, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" was distilled by author Albee into this question: "Who's afraid of living life without false illusions?"

"You can stand it!"

"I cannot stand it!"

"You can stand it, you married me for it!"

Yes, "Virginia," there is a Santa Claus, but he'd be a flabbergasted ol' elf dropping down this chimney.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ or 702-383-0256.