Peggy Sue Got Merry: Turner’s Martha has a snort.
Peggy Sue Got Merry: Turner’s Martha has a snort.

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In the marital dance of death that is Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it is customary for Martha to lead and for George to find ways to trip her up. It didn’t matter that Arthur Hill’s history professor towered over Uta Hagen’s faculty wife on Broadway, or that Richard Burton acted rings around Elizabeth Taylor on film, the force-of-nature/milquetoast choreography has ever seemed set in stone: Martha active, George passive.

So what, you may wonder as a braying Kathleen Turner settles boozily into an armchair, and Bill Irwin buzzes around her like some spastic, overcaffeinated mosquito, is going on at the Eisenhower Theater? Turner, earth mother incarnate and movie star to boot, may be leading vocally—how could she not, with that smoky basso rasp?—but from the moment the curtain rises, Irwin’s George is the one you can’t take your eyes off. He moves to mysterious rhythms, his arms flapping, head untethered, hips thrust forward as if he’s balanced his upper body on them the way a clown balances a towering pile of crockery just before someone adds one last plate and the tower comes crashing down.

Spinelessness turns out to be what Irwin’s miming, and he’s doing it with such physical precision that when his younger academic rival Nick (David Furr) mutters some two acts later that he doesn’t believe George has “a vertebra intact,” you know exactly what prompted the image.

By that time, of course, these folks—along with Nick’s drippy wife, Honey (Kathleen Early)—have imbibed so much liquor and progressed so casually from academic skirmishes to marital warfare that you’ll have learned to be as wary of George’s seeming ineffectuality as you are of his monstrous mate’s lumbering broadsides. Turner lobs bombs where Irwin snipes from the sidelines; she lurches into battle crushing anyone foolish enough to get in her way, he darts around her, drawing blood and biding his time.

And whenever the spitting and the carnage threaten to become overwhelming, Anthony Page’s staging calls a brief truce and has everyone settle down for a bit so you can hear the poetic violence of the words they’re all saying. At the top of Act 3, Martha has a speech about the husband, “who has made the hideous, the hurting, the insulting mistake of loving me and who must be punished for it.” It is an exquisite dissection of her marriage, which Albee put there mostly for the audience—Nick’s present to hear it, but she barely notices him. Turner, who has been spectacularly vulgar all night, turns its couplets into the most delicate sort of haymakers imaginable, intoning them with immense regret: “George, who tolerates, which is intolerable; who is kind, which is cruel; who understands, which is beyond comprehension.” There’s such love in her eyes as she utters the words, and such despair that it feels as if the air has gone out of the auditorium for a moment. Then the hardness returns to her voice, and the games continue.

Albee was in town last week and told anyone who’d listen that Turner and Irwin had settled into their characters since they’d picked up a pair of Tony nominations in 2005 and were now playing them with more subtlety and nuance than they had been even in their later stint in London. So they’re starting their current national tour about as seasoned as they’re likely to get.

And it’s hard to imagine improving on the support they’re receiving from Early’s brandy-swilling, air-swallowing, eye-crossing Honey, who blurts boozy home truths and homilies with timing so hilarious it’s almost hiccup-inducing. Furr’s Nick—who looks a bit like a young Robert Redford and prowls the stage with such feline calculation it almost seems that Martha may have met her match—is also galvanizing, both persuasively driven and desperately callow.

There’s an exchange between Furr and Turner that haunted me out into the parking garage, not for what they’d said but for what both of them had done with a pause. It came when Nick interrupted George in the middle of one of his rambling rants and Martha instinctively leapt to her husband’s defense. They’re a team, and their guests are interlopers, no matter who’s on what side at any given moment. So with her eyes fixed on George, she snapped an annoyed “Shut up and listen” at Nick, recovering and adding the softener, “cutie,” just a nanosecond too late. The calculation that flashed in her eyes during the pause, and the shock that registered in Nick’s, was at once uproarious and telling. Then Irwin’s George gave a tiny twitch, and it was clear that he’d orchestrated the whole thing—underestimated, as always, because he seems spineless.

All of which makes for an evening that’s as blisteringly funny as it is wrenching. Every time I see Woolf, I’m startled afresh at how it rocks the house with laughter for two acts, then turns so harrowing toward the curtain’s fall that it’s hard to remember what could possibly have seemed funny. This time, the turn is as physical as it is emotional and convulsive enough to give audiences whiplash.