Facing fear with Virginia Woolf?

Eric Epstein was no ordinary child. While his classmates were dreaming of girls and cars, young Epstein was poring over Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? "I fell in love with it when I was 13..."

Eric Epstein was no ordinary child.

While his classmates were dreaming of girls and cars, young Epstein was poring over Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

“I fell in love with it when I was 13,” said the Guild’s artistic director.

A year later, when he was 14-years-old, Epstein read Edward Albee’s script to his class.

It’s a long play.

But that didn’t deter him.

“I read it over a number of periods,” he said.

It’s not light material.

In fact, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was so controversial it lost its Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1963.

The Pulitzer jury awarded Albee’s play the much-coveted prize, but the award’s advisory board, objecting to the script’s use of profanity and its sexual themes, overruled the jury.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf revolves around four drunken adults coming together at a party that starts at 2 a.m. and lasts until dawn, said Epstein.

Martha, the daughter of the university president, and George, an associate history professor, invite an unsuspecting young professor and his wife home for drinks after a party.

As alcohol flows, insults fly, and the psychological games begin.

The young couple find themselves in the midst of a domestic dispute fueled by frustration and passion. Both engrossed and uncomfortable, the young couple can’t seem to tear themselves away, even when the attack turns on them.

In the first act, aptly titled Fun and Games, Martha taunts George:

Martha: … In fact, he was sort of a … a FLOP! A great … big … fat … FLOP!

(CRASH! Immediately after FLOP! George breaks a bottle against the portable bar …)

George (almost crying): I said stop, Martha.

Martha: I hope that was an empty bottle, George. You don’t want to waste good liquor … not on your salary. Not on an associate professor’s salary!

“It’s got heaviness,” said Epstein. “But it’s also one of the funniest plays you’ll ever encounter.”

There’s cruelty in it, he said.

“There’s sadistic streaks and masochistic streaks, but it’s also a love story.”

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had a lasting impact on the young Epstein.

“There was stuff that entered my consciousness when I was 13, that I didn’t recall until I came back to the play,” he said.

By the second act, Walpurgisnacht – named after a pagan holiday in northern Europe where the line between the living and dead is blurred –

Martha and George talk about their son, but it’s unclear whether he actually exists.

And by the third act, The Exorcism, things come to a head.

With three acts, the play runs more than two and a half hours and has two intermissions.

The audience can join the party, said Epstein. “There’s lots of drinking on stage, so people might want to join in.”

Adopted shortly after he was born, Albee grew up in New York state, the son of a wealthy vaudeville mogul.

He was kicked out of Trinity College, Connecticut, after cutting class and refusing to attend chapel.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is believed to be inspired by Albee’s time at Trinity. The play’s title came from graffiti he saw scribbled in a bar bathroom.

“I was in there having a beer one night, and I saw ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror,” said Albee in William Flanagan’s The Art of Theater.

“When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again.

“And of course, who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf means who’s afraid of the big bad Woolf … who’s afraid of living life without false illusions.

“And it did strike me as being a rather typical, university intellectual joke.”

The play makes a mockery of white middle-class life.

“There are cringe-worthy moments,” said Epstein.

“And in the last decade, television comedy has exploited that.”

Albee, whose play The Zoo Story premiered in Berlin alongside Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape in 1960, is still writing at the ripe age of 81.

His most recent play, At Home at the Zoo, was written this year.

When Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was written, in the early ‘60s, people were breaking away from shows like Leave it to Beaver, said Epstein.

Albee set the tone for people like David Lynch by looking behind the walls of America, he said.

The Guild’s production was directed by Sarah Rodgers, a very busy Vancouver-based actor and director.

She only had four weeks to mount the Yukon production, and cast the show from Vancouver via Skype, using live-video stream.

Now, Rodgers is back in Vancouver directing another show.

“She’s going to watch the previews via Skype, then give us notes,” said Epstein.

Set in Martha and George’s living room, the production team needed a matching couch and chair.

But those were surprisingly hard to come by in Whitehorse.

The Guild had a perfect stuffed chair and used to have a matching couch, but it was missing, and a search began on Artsnet.

In the end, Baked cafe donated its leather sofa and chair for the show.

“I’m not sure what they’re going to be sitting on at Baked,” said Epstein.

And the couch wasn’t even the trickiest prop to scrounge up.

The show also needed a very specialized gun. (Epstein didn’t want to elaborate and ruin the surprise.)

“There was one in New York,” he said.

“But they wanted $1,000 to rent it.”

Epstein tapped local talent instead. Dean Eyre and Philippe LeBlond ended up creating the much-needed item.

Now, the Guild can start renting it and give New York some competition, said Epstein.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opens September 24 at the Guild Hall.

It runs Wednesday through Saturday until October 10. September 30 is pay-what-you-can night.

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com