No one who began her career as smolderingly as Kathleen Turner did in the 1981 movie “Body Heat” would ever seem destined to play Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” But to see this now-robust actress, ripened in her middle years by life and the mercilessness of show business, slip into the disappointed skin of the boozy, loudmouth wife of a jaded professor is to experience a perfect theatrical storm of talent and opportunity. In a role with legendary precedents -- Uta Hagen, Elizabeth Taylor, Colleen Dewhurst -- Turner, reproducing the realistic magic that bowled over the New York and London critics, sensationally offers a Martha for our time.
But buckle up, everyone. It’s going to be a long and bumpy ride. Anthony Page’s internationally acclaimed production, which opened Friday at the Ahmanson Theatre with Bill Irwin reprising his Tony-winning performance as George, has a tough challenge on its hands. Even with Turner’s unadulterated star power, Albee’s play isn’t a dramatic cakewalk. It’s a grueling, three-hour marital wrestling match that combines August Strindberg’s vitriol, Eugene O’Neill’s alcoholic despair, Samuel Beckett’s looming sense of the absurd, and the author’s own comedy of invective, in which his genius for phrase-making operates under a principle of death by a thousand cuts.
When it premiered on Broadway in 1962, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” provoked a groundswell of controversy. For many, including the Pulitzer board, which denied Albee the award for drama even though a panel of judges had voted in the play’s favor, the coarse language and sexual nastiness pushed the envelope a bit too far.
Obscenity is no longer the issue. But nonstop verbal fisticuffs over highballs aren’t exactly everyone’s idea of a good time at the theater. This is an experience you must enter willingly; otherwise, after watching a few pummeling rounds of refills, you’re likely to start silently screaming, “Would you just call it a night, folks, and let us all get some sleep?”
As always with Albee, the journey’s rewards are more theatrical than philosophical. He writes brilliant, lancing dialogue for actors, provides them with the most pungently histrionic traits and marshals them into a terrifying battle in which their characters’ cruelty is set against their compassion. One doesn’t require more than this, but Albee overlays a dream book of symbolic meanings, referencing, among other things, the decline of Western civilization, the dissolution of American values and the eternal confusion between truth and illusion.
Ramshackle as it is in spots, the thematic architecture isn’t half as impressive as the blow-by-blow action, which gets under way when Martha extends an invitation to a young couple to join her and her husband, George, for a nightcap ... or 12. They’ve all just spent a long evening at the home of Martha’s father, the president of the New England college where the men teach. Nick (David Furr), a new and hunky addition to the biology department who has caught Martha’s voracious eye, and Honey (Kathleen Early), his mousy wife, are cowed into compliance, while poor put-upon George, an associate professor in the history department not likely to be promoted, dutifully clinks ice into his wife’s ever-ready glass.
What follows is a drunken night’s journey into day. Divided into three acts, the play revolves around unruly party “games” that Martha initiates to shame her husband into an act of retaliation that will either mark the end or a new beginning of their union.
“I’m loud, and I’m vulgar, and I wear the pants in this house because somebody’s got to, but I am not a monster,” Martha shouts in self-defense to George. Turner walks this fine line perfectly. Her brazen laughter is filled with derision, and her husky voice resembles the bray George is always ridiculing her about. But her desperation isn’t fueled by perversion. She gives you the sense of a woman waging a violent campaign against the cynical indifference engulfing them.
Martha and George strike out at one another to reassure themselves that their connection isn’t completely dead -- that they can still make each other wince.
Irwin’s approach emphasizes George’s passive-aggressive tendencies. He parries better than he thrusts. Dressed like Mister Rogers, he seems perpetually in danger of slipping into his own nullity. “I swear, if you existed I’d divorce you,” Martha tells him, and it’s easy to understand the resentment she feels toward his spinelessness.
The downside to Irwin’s interpretation is that he’s not particularly galvanizing in the scenes in which George instigates the mischief. Whenever he’s alone onstage antagonizing Nick, the boil of hostility that Martha has been keeping up is reduced to a simmer. Richard Burton, who starred with Taylor in Mike Nichols’ movie adaptation, brought a world-weary sophistication that could still deliver a punch between the eyes. Irwin’s vindictiveness is more discreet. Yes, it can be quite scary, but his soft-voiced style can grow monotonous when Turner is out of the picture.
More jock than scientist, Furr captures Nick’s self-satisfied ruggedness. As Martha leads him into a bestial tango, practically raping him with his clothes on, he reveals how far he’ll go to get ahead in his career, even sleeping with the president’s fire-breathing daughter if it will earn him points.
In the role gaudily brought to life on film by Sandy Dennis, Early wrings laughs by playing Honey as broadly as possible. (Her mannerisms make Dennis’ trademark tics seem subtle.) The comedy adds color, but it’s too easy to dismiss the character’s sorrow -- beginning with a sterile marriage that eerily resembles an early version of George and Martha’s -- as a half-bottle of brandy talking.
The physical production looks terrific in the Ahmanson. Set designer John Lee Beatty has created a lived-in academic household that you can actually imagine people reading -- as well as drinking -- in, day after gloomy day. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting poetically reminds us of the small hours in which the story is unfolding. And Jane Greenwood’s costumes squarely situate us in 1960.
But the occasion belongs to Turner, who finally has a part she can sink her ferocious teeth into.
There’s an authenticity here that feels hard-won both in terms of its psychological edginess and its theatrical daring. When her character erupts, “I am the Earth Mother, and you’re all flops,” she says it with the conviction of a woman who at long last knows her own strength.
‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Ends: March 18
Price: $20 to $80
Contact: (213) 628-2772
Running Time: 3 hours, 5 minutes
Written by Edward Albee. Directed by Anthony Page. Sets by John Lee Beatty. Costumes by Jane Greenwood. Lights by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound by Mark Bennett & Michael Creason. Production stage manager Susie Cordon.