Emerson hits right 'Woolf' tone with Edward Albee classic

Margaret Smith

It was the golden age of the cocktail party – the smiling get-togethers where the sparkle of post-war optimism tinged with resentments that gushed out after lubricated hours of weekend merriments.

It was a practice so much a part of popular culture that it even prompted a plea for restraint in an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” in which a housewife’s binge results in tragedy.

Not every story about the glass-clinking social that went horribly wrong culminated with a moral.

In playwright Edward Albee’s view, sometimes the festivities just ended badly, and several hours after they should have, and it’s up to the survivors to scrape their lives back together or at least hail a taxi rather than driving.

Emerson Umbrella Center for the Performing Arts takes us back to that era – with a wry nod to our own -- with Albee’s signature play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” drawing it out of the shadows of the celebrated film version with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

The production is part of the “Emerson Umbrella Presents” performing arts series.

In contrast to the film’s nocturnal phantoms, this stage version is brightly lit and energetic, with a pace that will agree with contemporary audiences while staying true to the play’s early 1960s setting.

In this way, the principal characters are comfortable time travelers: Martha, the attractive daughter of a New England college president, and her husband, George, a history professor whose marriage alliance should have sealed his path to success.

Except, as Martha brays to anyone who will hear, even her father soon recognized George lacked the necessary temerity (or perhaps she means ruthlessness?) for advancement.

For his part, George bears Martha’s buffeting good-naturedly at first, then starts skulking about the living room, devolving from the image of favorite uncle in a Mister Rogers sweater to a prowling, churning inferno of rage.

As the pair spar with perverse gusto after coming home late from a college function, Martha announces she’s invited over some guests she’s just met at the festivities – a young biology professor, Nick, and his wife, known only by a term of endearment, Honey.

And then, something remarkable happens – Martha and George become sympathetic, their vulnerabilities exposed raw, as timid and apprehensive Nick and Honey become more aware of opportunity with each brandy glass they clumsily slog back.

Far from being helpless in the wake of the older couple’s sadistic head games, Nick starts working Martha’s and George’s insecurities to his benefit – even as his wife sleeps off her brandy-soaked raptures on the bathroom floor.

All cast members are agile in their roles under the direction of Bob Knapp, who due to a last-minute change had to take on the role of George, nimbly taking on the character’s desires, anguish and thwarted sense of masculinity.

The only aspect of the production that might have been better timed is, actually, the start time of the evening performances.

The play, presented in three acts, is an epic length. An opening the curtain at 8 p.m. for evening performances asks a lot from play goers, especially those who might come a long distance and who might consider the Sunday afternoon performance.

Either way, be prepared to be thrown into a cosmic wormhole of shattering emotions, and emerge without comforts, but maybe a bit more planted on the ground.