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VIRGINIA WOOLFE
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Hudson Hub Times (Record Publishing)
Who’s Afraid? Not Actors’ Summit

By Eric Ext


The Actors’ Summit Theater is on a mission: “to present professional theater created by Ohio artists for the entertainment and enrichment of our diverse community,” according to its Website.

Last weekend, Actors’ Summit marked its third year on this noble mission with the opening of its 20th production to date, Edward Albee’s famous and controversial 1962 play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Opening night was April 5 in the theater’s humble yet effective and happily permanent Hudson home, where it settled after a Grand Opening Gala on September 22, 2001. Up to that point, it had inhabited 10 different locations, ranging from an old Masonic Temple in Akron to some co-productions on the Cleveland State University stage to a Jewish community center and even a hardware store.

The show’s cast is comprised of Thomas W. Fulton as George, Paula Duesing as Martha, Peter Voinovich as Nick, and Susanna Hobrath as Honey. With only about 60 hours of rehearsal time spread over three weeks in the evenings prior to opening, they give an unbelievable performance. These dynamic characters and the situations they get themselves into involve so many tricky mood swings that it is almost as stressful to watch as, I can only imagine, it must be to act.

A. Neil Thackaberry, Director for this production as well as Creative Director for the Actors’ Summit, was quite familiar with Fulton’s illustrious career, and had worked with Duesing, Voinovich, and Hobrath together in several shows already, so he is not so surprised by their impressive performance.
“It gets to be like a family…,” says Thackaberry, “It’s like anything else -- if you’ve been working with other people, a kind of short hand develops.”

Suffice it to say, this kind of development is not coincidental. This is precisely what Actors’ Summit has set out to do from inception, as a theater by and for the artists and patrons of Ohio.

“It’s part of my basic belief,” says Thackaberry, “that the way the arts contribute to the cultural life of a community is that the lessons we have as creative artists carry over into our dealings with [the] local [community]… That’s how art takes place and really improves the cultural life of an entire community.”

The author, multiple Pulitzer Prize winning American playwright, Edward Albee (1928-), is usually said to be the father of Absurdist Theater in America. Absurdist Theater, as the name implies, deals in stories that do not necessarily follow the clearest lines of logic. Truth, if any is admitted, is typically buried in bantering games, amorphous settings, and a tendency of action toward the chaotic.

While “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” certainly fits its Absurdist characterization to a tee, don’t be too easily put off. With its overarching themes of frustrated potential, vicarious living, and anesthetic self-delusion, it provides plenty of relevant fodder for reflection for the experienced Suburban-American and with its often hilarious dialogue (hardly a minute goes by in the first half of the play when the audience isn’t laughing at some expertly delivered, ace one-liners) or its outrageous action (a little wrestling, a strangling attempt or two) and scandal (some rather crass flirtations and adulterous encounters), even by jaded 21st century standards, this 1962 play can still pack a few jolts.

The story takes place in one long night in the modest but comfortable living room of George and Martha. The set, purposefully arranged to recall the form of a boxing ring edged by couches where all the characters’ battles take place, was an idea long envisioned by the set designer, Robert Stegmiller. George and Martha, named iconically after America’s First Couple, are a sportingly soured but loving middle-aged couple who live in a small New England town called New Carthage. George, who is a comfortably tenured associate professor of History at the somewhat claustrophobic local university, and his brash, slightly more middle-aged wife, Martha, have just returned home rather late after a tedious faculty mixer. Martha soon reveals to George that they can’t go to bed just yet because, much to his chagrin, she has taken the liberty of inviting a new faculty member and his wife over for drinks.

Nick, the latest young, handsome up-and-comer on the faculty, has a chilly void where his sense of humor should be. His wife, Honey, is a “mousy little type, with no hips or anything.” When the younger couple arrive, they scarcely suspect what manner of horrors await them, as they become pawns to these two seasoned veterans of inter-marital warfare who, unbeknownst to young Nick and Honey, also happen on this night to be teetering on the last flimsy supports of a volatile but precariously balanced relationship… and definition of reality. Caught in a swift tide of liquor and loquaciousness, no one’s private embarrassments or illusions can remain unsolicited for long.

Thomas Fulton, a 30 year veteran of the theater (including 5 years acting with the Cleveland Play House), Artistic Director of three professional theater companies in Northeast Ohio since 1975, and co-founder of The Cleveland Theatre Company, makes his first appearance here with Actors’ Summit. Even though Fulton has taught and directed scenes from “Who’s Afraid…” many times over the years, he finds himself acting in the play for the first time. Fulton understands the crux of his character’s motivation well.

“George, more than anything” says Fulton, “… wants some peace…in his life, and he is willing to sacrifice stuff for that, but he can’t have peace as long as these demons are flying around the house -- and so he’s got to exorcise them.”

Humor and wordplay are George’s main weapons and Fulton executes with masterful finesse. He looks just right with his professorial brown slacks, sweater vest and pulled tie, monastic gray hair (think Franciscan) and goatee, and a good healthy “distension.”

His wife and nemesis, Martha, is clearly a very frustrated woman who does her best to belittle her husband in front of their younger, more virile guests, because he has failed to be the great success she tried so hard to groom him to be. Paula Duesing, whose bombastic smoker’s voice could not be more dead on for the part, is another long-time veteran of the stage who has now already been in three Actors’ Summit productions. Duesing gives an effortless performance as the extremely aggressive yet pitifully neurotic Martha, while appreciating the historical context of her character.

“It’s definitely set in an era,” says Duesing, “in the early 60’s -- it was certainly before women were encouraged to expand their horizons and find something to do with their lives.”

Peter Voinovich (yes, yes, he’s George Voinovich’s youngest son -- more importantly,he is also an experienced actor and has himself appeared in several Actors’ Summit shows) is the perfect straight man as Nick, the steely blue eyed, solid gold groined young biologist who’s going to take over the world with his chromosomes and his pragmatic ways… at least that’s how George plays it. Voinovich does not exactly see Nick as a carefree guy who feels he has lots of options.
“I think [Nick is] basically unhappy with his situation,” says Voinovich, “and he sort of feels trapped in his own situation and then he gets into this situation and feels trapped….”

Susanna Hobrath, another well-experienced actor to round out the bunch, has done TV and film in addition to her theater work. Hobrath has actually appeared in the last three consecutive Actors’ Summit productions, which, according to Thackaberry, is usually avoided since rehearsals for the next show usually start during performance of the current show. “But [Susanna] came in and she gave such a dynamite audition,” says Thackaberry, “I couldn’t deny her the role.” Hobrath does indeed paint a glorious caricature with Honey, while sporting her Sunday School teacher’s dress, horn-rimmed glasses, and period flip hairdo complete with headband.

“I think [Honey] just comes in trying to make friends with people,” says Hobrath, “and she’s totally out of her league… [George and Martha] are not people she can sit around and giggle with….”

Reflecting on the intensive rehearsal, Actors’ Summit’s limited budget, and the subsequent work of having to build most of the set and furniture himself, along with Stage Manager and co-conspirator, MaryJo Alexander, Thackaberry remains ever positive.
“It’s a lot of work,” says Thackaberry, “but it’s

very satisfying when the performance comes together and the audience responds.”
Though “Who’s Afraid…” can get a little too emotional any for illusions of light weekend entertainment, and runs pretty long at a little over three hours (with two 10 minute intermissions), why not step out and take the challenge with Actors’ Summit, see the invaluable talents which may be found in your own back yard, maybe learn a little something about yourself, and see an incredible play to boot.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” runs from April 4 through April 21, 2002, at 8pm Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 3pm Sunday. Tickets are $22 on Fridays and Saturdays and $20 on Thursdays and Sundays. Students and Seniors receive a $4 discount. Group discounts are available. Actors’ Summit Theater is located at 86 Owen Brown Street (in the Antiques Galleries building), Hudson, Ohio. Call (330) 342-0800 or visit www.actorssummit.org for more information.

© Copyright Tom Fulton 2001-1004