KC Melting Pot Mounts a Gripping (and Historically Significant) “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Four actors perform on stage in a 1960s living room.

The cast of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Thomas Kimble – TK Photography)

Edward Albee was notoriously controlling over how his work was produced, especially when it came to his most famous play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He (and after his death, his estate) denied the rights to the play and even went so far as to take legal action to shut down productions that utilized non-traditional casting. That included versions with same-sex couples or single-gender casts and, as recently as 2017, a Portland, Oregon production that wanted to cast a Black actor in the role of Nick.

In 2001, though, Albee collaborated with Howard University to create a version of the script specifically tailored to a cast of Black actors. That is the version currently onstage at KC Melting Pot, the first time the script has been used since 2001. The changes aren’t massive—moving the college town where the play is set from New England to Virginia, including references to other HBCUs, and making adjustments to descriptions of the characters’ appearances—but they are significant in allowing this iconic play to feel true to the actors on stage at this prominent Kansas City theatre dedicated to telling “complex stories of African American life.”

Directed here by Ile Haggins, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a vicious, alcohol-fueled 5D chess game of emotional destruction. George is a middle-of-the-pack, middle-aged history professor, married to Martha, who also happens to be the college president’s daughter and is keenly aware of every drop of power that position affords her. Returning home from a raucous Saturday night party with the insular (incestuous, really) community of the small college’s faculty and their spouses, George is surprised to learn that Martha has invited a young couple to keep the night going. What follows is a devastating run of twisted mind games that last until dawn.

Albee’s unrelenting script requires a committed, tenacious cast to do it justice and Haggins’ actors are up to the task. Lewis Morrow is a marvel as George, a terrifying powerhouse driven by depression, resentment, and the sense of invulnerability that comes with feeling you have nothing left to use. Martha (played to perfection by the indomitable Lynn King) brandishes every weapon in her emotional arsenal openly and loudly, but Morrow’s George acts with quiet malice, constantly gathering intel on everyone around him and filing it away to be brutally weaponized later. One of Martha’s most potent weapons is her sexuality, which she wields like a sledgehammer. That element of the character and the play overall feels somewhat muted here, but King is phenomenal (and formidable) nonetheless.

As the younger husband, Nick, Marcel Daly holds his own against Martha’s aggressive advances and George’s sparring. Haley Johnson is a delight as Nick’s wife, Honey. (Whether that’s her name or Nick’s pet name for her, she’s never taken seriously enough by those around her for us to find out.) There’s no “relief” in this play, comedy or otherwise, but Johnson is deeply hilarious. The play begins in the early hours of the morning, and Honey comes in already quite sloshed. Her eyes swim in her head, no match for what she has to face—though she is so earnestly naive, it seems likely she would have been out of her depths even stone-cold sober. Throughout the play, Honey exists largely in a world of her own, an innocent oblivious to the emotional violence being inflicted all around her. When the blows do land on her, they are all the more painful.

The show’s technical elements set this stage beautifully. Daniella Toscano’s costumes and Doug Schroeder’s mid-century set made up of clean lines and open space, along with Warren Deckert’s subtly groovy lighting and sound designer Dennis Jackson’s music choices all work to create a seamless 1960s aesthetic without distracting from the action.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a tough script to tackle, seeing as it’s essentially a three-act nonstop emotional boxing match with few respites for any of the actors. The energy falters and the tension drops a few times over the course of the show but overall, this is a masterly—as well as historically significant—production of an arduous classic.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” a production of KC Melting Pot, runs through May 11 at the Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central. For more information, visit www.kcmeltingpot.com.

Vivian Kane

Vivian Kane is a writer living in Kansas City. She covers pop culture and politics for a national audience at The Mary Sue and theatre and film locally, with bylines in The Pitch. She has an MFA in Theatre from CalArts.

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