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Conversation: Steppenwolf Theater’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

It’s one of the classic plays in American theater. A portrait of troubled marriages, one old, one new, that shows how love and resentment can accumulate over the years in a ferocious clash of wills.

We’re talking about Edward Albee’s 1962 play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It’s been revived in an acclaimed production by the Steppenwolf Theater Company of Chicago, and is currently playing here in Washington at the Arena Stage.

Tracy Letts, widely known as a playwright and the winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for August: Osage County, stars as George. Pam MacKinnon directed the show.

They joined me in the studio this week:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s one of the classic plays in American theater, a portrait of troubled marriages, one old, one new, how love and resentment accumulate over the years in a ferocious class of wills. We’re talking about Edward Albee’s 1962 play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Now it’s been revived in an acclaimed production by the Steppenwolf Theater of Chicago and is currently playing here in Washington, D.C., at Arena Stage. Tracy Letts stars as George. Mr. Letts is, of course, wildly known as a playwright. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for “August: Osage County.” Pam MacKinnon directed the show, and they both join me know. Welcome to you. I gather that both of you have a fairly long history with both the playwright and the play. Right? Why did you want to take this on now?

TRACY LETTS: It’s a play I’ve known very well my whole life. My father was an English professor, and I remember the play sitting around, the paperback sitting around in my house when I was a kid, and when I first became interested in acting, it’s one of the first things I picked up, just doing the scenes from…

JEFFREY BROWN: Went right to the top.

TRACY LETTS: Absolutely. My little, 15-year-old George, my version of George at 15, doing scenes from it in my bedroom when I was a kid. I got a chance to do a production of it a few years ago at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta, and I was a bit young for the part, and so when the opportunity came up to do it again, now that I’m really the right age, and to do it with people like Pam and my collaborators at Steppenwolf, I just couldn’t pass it up. It’s an important play in my life, in my development as an artist and a playwright, and so the opportunity to get into it like this was too good to pass up.

JEFFREY BROWN: Whey did you not pass it up?

PAM MACKINNON: Well, I think that it’s one of those plays that will be done in hundreds of years. It is a true classic. And I’ve been working with Edward Albee now going on 10 years and started working on his more recent plays, and the last two seasons — or I guess three seasons, have dipped back into, I guess, his classic plays, and that’s incredibly exciting to have sort of an ongoing relationship with a writer, and this happens to be one of our greatest writers.

JEFFREY BROWN: I had the chance to talk to him a few years ago, and one of the things we talked about was this play made him famous and then he had to not keep rewriting the same play. When you’re taking it on, something that is, there are so many productions, it’s so well known you almost, seems to me, you have the opposite problem. You have to take on something we all know and make it new in a way. So how do you do it?

PAM MACKINNON: Yeah, I mean at the center of this play, in some respects, a lot of the audience comes to the play having seen Mike Nichols’ movie, and Mike Nichols’ movie is not the play. Perhaps the words are the same, but the location shift in it, and it’s particular tone, and what’s incredibly gratifying is that a lot of audience, especially coming out of our first act, say, Oh my goodness, I didn’t realize this was so funny. And that was not Mike Nichols’ interest, it wasn’t his point of view that he put up there on the screen. That’s very gratifying to me. At the center of it, it’s a love story. It’s a marriage play. There actually is an incredible bond between these two characters.

JEFFREY BROWN: You said you read it early, you must have seen productions, you must have seen the movie. When you’re about to take it on now, do you grab those again and study them or do you shove them to a side?

TRACY LETTS: I shove them aside. I shove them aside and just start at square one and say, Who is this guy? What does he want? Why is he here? Why do I say this line? Why is this word inflected within this line? You just start with the real specific questions about where you are in the given moment, the given circumstances of the play. But no, a lot of the iconic portrayals of this, certainly Burton in the move, that stuff just isn’t helpful to me in a new cast, a new configuration, this director, it’s not helpful to me. It’s nothing against Richard Burton, he’s great in the movie, but my George isn’t that George.

JEFFREY BROWN: I read some reviews that suggested that yours was a more aggressive George, a less passive take than we’re used to from some productions. Does that sound right?

TRACY LETTS: I’ve heard this and I suppose I can understand why people say that, although it’s not as if I set out to do something different than other people had done with it. I did what I hope most actors do; I just sort of saw where I could bring myself to bear in the role as well. But I remember being interviewed by an arts writer in Chicago who was asking me, he said, Well, George is this, George is that. He was sort of listing all the qualities he associated with George. And I said, Well, that’s not my George. That’s now how I view the character. I see him as somebody who’s very actively involved in his relationship, in his relationship with his wife and is actively attempting to make that situation better over the course of the play. For me, it is a very active role and not a passive role at all. He’s the protagonist of the piece.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right we have a short clip. I want to play right now.

[CLIP]

JEFFREY BROWN: I will not light your cigarette. Walk me through that scene. What were you thinking and what do you want the scene like that to bring out?

PAM MACKINNON: It’s one of the first moments in the play. It feels like a big turn in what kind of evening…

JEFFREY BROWN: He literally comes back through the door, right?

PAM MACKINNON: Yeah, yeah, and it’s George drawing a line. Martha has sprung some late night guests on him, and he goes along for a while, and there’s some host banter, and he even talks one-on-one, has some man talk with Nick, and Martha comes back wearing a different outfit. George knows what kind of evening this is, but there’s a line in the sand now. And it feels like it’s one of the first public — cool, but public confrontations between this couple. And then they keep on escalating from there. But for me, watching that scene, and it’s the freakiest little bit of TV, I mean, it’s such a play to me, but you see you watch it as a TV show, and it’s like what is this? The writing is just so good. And this was Edward Albee’s first full-length play. He wrote it when he was 32. It’s crazy to me. So that’s sort of where I drifted off when I was watching that scene.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you feel watching that scene?

TRACY LETTS: I feel like, Jesus, I’m losing a lot of hair.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, that’s how we all — where’s the hairline, right? I want to go back to something you said at the beginning here about learning from Albee, because your other hat is playwright hat, right? And here is one of the great playwrights of our — of ever. What did you learn from him and how when you are doing something like this or watching one of his productions, what do you learn from him as a playwright?

TRACY LETTS: I think a lot of it is innate. A lot of it is just being steeped in the language of a purely theatrical writer, of a real dramatist. Mr. Albee has a way of dramatizing very mundane moments, making them dramatic, making them pop, making them interesting and especially humorous for an audience. He has a great, wry sense of humor, sometimes even silly but almost always very smart. And that sense of humor has become such a part of our language in the American theater. Mr. Albee’s sense humor is his identifiably American and theatrical simultaneously. And I think all playwrights, I think we all feel some of his sense of humor in our genetic code, in our DNA somehow, he’s become part of us that sense of humor.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally, how would you look at his work? You said you’ve worked on a lot of his newer works now, and now going back to some of the classics, the older ones?

PAM MACKINNON: It’s interesting. I think any singular artist maybe has a handful of issues that he or she spends an entire lifetime trying to work through. And what’s interesting, someone who has now lived with a number of his plays, taking a number of his plays to heart, is that the issues remain the same. The obsessive need to answer a few fundamental questions remains the same. His style has shifted. His characters don’t speak at such great lengths. His characters used to be more florid, but their sense of humor, as Tracy said, is still very wry, very front and center. They also sort of do things in a glancing way, like confrontation is done sort of in a sideways way as opposed to dead on. And so there are great similarities. It’s a real voice at work, if a play is 55 years old or written last year, but stylistically it’s interesting to note some changes.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and the production by Steppenwolf Theater. Tracy Letts, Pam MacKinnon, thank you both very much.

TRACY LETTS: Thank you.

PAM MACKINNON: Thank you.

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