At this point in history, we don't need art to tell us that marriage can be a grueling slog, an Iditarod of two, whips and all. We need art to help us deal with it.
There's not much aid in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the mother of all bad-marriage dramas, which is enjoying an extraordinary revival by the Kansas City Actors Theatre. Over the course of an excruciating after-hours party at the home of long-wedded — and utterly miserable — George and Martha, inner monologues become public floggings. With a younger couple serving as witnesses, playthings and hostages, our leads scorch the earth with their clanging, brutal truths.
Key to the play's original success, in 1962, was shock — both of recognition and of the good old-fashioned what-will-they-say-next? variety. Its continued success comes from genuine greatness. Even today, when nothing in it qualifies as news, when its situations come across as labored, and when we wonder why the younger couple never just gets up and leaves, we're often riveted by its viciousness and virtuosity.
This is especially true when actors as skilled as Mark Robbins and Jan Rogge go at each other as the leads. As boozy, sexually frustrated Martha, Rogge is a train wreck in leopard print, a braying ballbreaker who, played by a less-sensitive performer, might come across as a parody of masculine fears. But here, Rogge is a force, appealing despite the character's wheedling and cruelty; when she seduces Nathan Darrow's weak-willed Nick, a young colleague of George's, we feel for him but ache for her.
George has driven her to this, of course. A mild man, seemingly reasonable and certainly witty, he has our sympathies at first, especially as Martha browbeats him in front of Nick and Honey (Heidi Stubblefield, ace as a drunk). Soon, though, as he shrinks from Martha's punishment — only to later stage elaborate attacks upon her — he, too, earns our enmity. Robbins' George is broken, but the breaking exhilarates him: He's free to break back. Few pleasures rival watching Mark Robbins in a great part, and this is his greatest in recent memory. With a patience both warm and terrifying, he waits while Martha takes Nick to bed. In his humiliation, his best-yet insult is pearling up, and he seems to savor it.
Under Donna Thomason's clear-eyed direction, every action communicates. As they circle each other about Adrienne Harper's fine living-room set, we see how George and Martha inspire and admire each other's attacks. We also see that they love each other anyway. It's never quite believable as narrative drama, but as a portrait of who these people are and what their union feels like, it is commanding.
The Coterie Theatre's excellent civil-rights-era drama A Star Ain't Nothin' but a Hole in Heaven, on the other hand, actually is news. Unlike many of the young-adult classics based on the period, Judi Ann Mason's tough-minded play, presented here in a vibrant production directed by Jeff Church, never allows us to feel that any of the problems it addresses are "solved."
In 1969, in Louisiana backwoods gorgeously realized by Ron Megee's set, Pokie Cotton (the likable, enthusiastic Teisha Bankston) is preparing for both her high school graduation and the world at large. She hopes to head off to college on a scholarship that she chalks up to white people feeling guilty about MLK, but she hasn't yet managed to tell her aunt and uncle, an elderly and afflicted couple played well by Sheri Roulette Mosley and Frank Dodson.
Over the course of two busy days, she dallies with her first boy, busts up her most important friendship and wrestles with the conflict between her responsibilities to her family and her desire to "better" herself. How do we grow past our roots without severing them?
Her uncle is nearly blind and almost wholly dependent upon Pokie; he interprets her leaving home as a rejection of it. Her friend Joretta (the marvelous Toccarra Cash, in full spitfire mode) is also college-bound, and she talks about never coming back, not even to visit. This conflict is rich and painful, one recognizable to anyone who has ever outgrown the expectations of parents or community. (Mason crams in other problems, too, resulting in a show that stirs us despite being somewhat overstuffed.)
Billed by the Coterie as part of its Preteen-Young Adult series, Star should also be valuable to adults, anyone who appreciates serious drama or, especially, anyone out there who believes that this country's "playing field" is in any way level.