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Funhouse Mirror Grotesque

An Interview with Director Gordon Greenberg on How Martha and George Draw Us In

By Sarah Rose Leonard, Dramaturg for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


Sarah Rose Leonard: This is a play we return to a lot as a society. What made you want to direct it now?

Gordon Greenberg: I have always loved the play, although my relationship with it changes over the years. I first saw the movie in my teens. I was living in a household that wasn’t as drastically dangerous as this household, but it resonated. I certainly recognized the decaying relationship, codependence and violence, the disappointment and mourning that all these people are experiencing. I was also drawn to the exposing of the underbelly of an ostensibly perfect, orderly, suburban existence. I loved that the couple you thought had it all together and had everything going for them—the golden couple, if you will—is actually more dysfunctional than the couple who look like they’re a mess and should be separated, probably. I think George and Martha have a brighter future than Honey and Nick. And that was fascinating to me.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve understood what it means to love someone through darkness at times. The way you think about life is not quite as neat and tidy and finite. If you look at the lifespan of a relationship, it’s like traversing the Pacific Ocean. There are going to be storms, and there are going to be challenges and waves. But if you learn how to sail through them, you get a great reward at the end, which is mileage and longevity.

SRL: What’s been a delight to discover in the rehearsal room? What’s been a challenge?

GG: It’s fun to see who wins each battle. That friction between George and Martha keeps them alive. There’s an admiration for swordsmanship, for wit, and even for vulgarity. For sheer strength! The fine line between love and violence keeps the play dangerous and fascinating. That’s something we talk about a lot, too. That there’s both a terror of being the loser of any single battle, but also a reward because the person you love has won.

The other thing we’ve been talking about is the notion of about how frightening women’s lib was to the male establishment at the time. Many women were entering the workplace for the first time when the play was first staged in 1962. That fear seems absurd and corny to me now. But all of these people assumed the workforce was going to essentially be what it was, which is half of what it could have been. And people were scared. That’s what Albee was sending up. And then Albee underscores that between the men—Nick and George—it’s always a battle of testosterone. We’re embracing these themes in our production. There’s a beauty in Honey and Martha’s interactions. But it is a challenge to sneak that beauty in there when their moments together are so seldom, and when the men are always present.

SRL: Many people who encounter the play wonder why Nick and Honey don’t leave. Why you think they stay?

GG: This is Nick’s whole world. He’s at the President’s daughter’s house. If he leaves, he has to face it in the morning. I think, like all humans, he is protecting the possibility of a happy ending for himself, which might be some career advancement. He wants to keep his wife happy, maybe make a friend for her. Then, of course, he is forced to stay when Honey continues to get sick. They’re stuck there, but with each incident there is a little nudge keeping them in the room. Nick is constantly assessing which is going to be the greater loss: leaving right now and making a huge thing of it or suffering through this a little more. It’s the ultimate work dinner that you have to sit through that goes funhouse mirror grotesque.

SRL: I appreciate how you’re framing it as Nick’s decision, given what we just talked about with gender. Honey doesn’t get to make the choice about staying or leaving.

GG: She mentions right when they arrive that they should probably leave, but we also learn that she was the one who encouraged them to come over. She was thinking of her husband’s career advancement, and probably wanted to make some friends. She specifically mentions how difficult it was at Nick’s last job location to walk up to people and say hello. Isn’t that awful!

SRL: Martha’s father, the president of the college, is a big unseen force in the play. How does his presence manifest for these characters?

GG: Her father holds power over everyone in the room. His New England college is isolated and is its own little microcosm of the world. They all rely on his beneficence for their future. The cast and I were just talking about the fact that Martha, who is 52 years old, still calls her father “daddy.” I’ve realized that I sometimes call my own parents “mommy” and “daddy”—and my in-laws have noted it. It just happens, and it doesn’t feel absurd, but it definitely indicates a closeness and a sense of being protected by them—or that you think you should be. When Martha does it, we don’t know if she’s wielding it as a power play, or if she’s actually connected to the little girl version of herself, who sees him as the most important man in her life.

And George hates him! Martha’s “daddy” has a different ethos than George and clearly isn’t buying into George as his successor, or even as the head of his own department. Martha’s father reminds George of his failures. She talks about her father being more physical, George being less confident in his body. He’s a constant reminder of George’s own second-class status in his own house.

SRL: What makes this ensemble’s take on these characters special to you?

GG: Interestingly, everyone is about the age of the characters as written. I don’t usually see that. As written, George is six years younger than Martha. We have a George who is six years younger than her, and it resonates. Because we had cast a George and Martha who were essentially the ages of the characters, we then had to make sure our Nick and Honey were 28. That casting feels authentic, like Nick and Honey are trying on their parents’ clothing.

Everyone in this play is in deep mourning for something. They are also in a rage about the lives that they are not living. This cast has a true understanding and fearlessness in how they make those connections on a personal level.

Despite all of that, I believe that this is a play with hope. When you’ve got adversity, the only way around it is through. We’re watching these characters go through the storm probably in the worst way they ever have. I believe they come to a higher, hopefully more connected understanding of each other. There’s a reason Albee ends the show with dawn breaking. It’s almost too on the nose, but he’s telling us something. My feeling is that there is hope for a future for Martha and George.


Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

APR 19 – MAY 22, 2022
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
Featuring Aimee Carrero, Calista Flockhart, Graham Phillips & Zachary Quinto

George and Martha, the American theater’s most notoriously dysfunctional couple, have invited the young and naive Nick and Honey over for drinks. What begins as harmless patter escalates to outright marital warfare, with the provincial newcomers caught in the crossfire. We are thrilled to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the hilarious and harrowing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, arguably Edward Albee’s most famous and most vicious masterpiece.

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