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Center Stage

Emotional whipsaw, unflagging spitfires

9/24/2014

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Repertory Theater of Iowa. Sept. 12-28, Kum & Go Theater, Des Moines Social Club. Shows Thurs.-Sat. 7:30 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Repertory Theater of Iowa. Sept. 12-28, Kum & Go Theater, Des Moines Social Club. Shows Thurs.-Sat. 7:30 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m.

The set shows the baggage they carry. Even before the start of Repertory Theater of Iowa’s flawless new production, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” you feel the burdens on George and Martha, the drama’s aging spitfires. Their decorating tends to beige and brown, the pillars between rooms suggest cages, and the furniture doesn’t match. Budget issues, it looks like.

But, issues? Take your pick. These two find so much to squabble over that when Edward Albee’s play was judged the winner of the 1963 Pulitzer, the board of directors refused to give out any award. “Woolf” was deemed too nasty, with the leads tearing apart both each other and their two guests over the course of an after-party that starts at 2 a.m. There are plenty of laughs, but they have a bitter edge. For instance, there’s one of the “games” George dreams up: Hump the Hostess.

Martha plays that game, though she’s deep into middle age, and her seducer — or her prey? — is the 20-something guest, Nick. She doesn’t much enjoy it, either. On the contrary, she finds Nick “a flop.” She tells him so, not once, but twice, and last Saturday, the double blow set the audience gasping.

Kim Grimaldi delivered the first “flop” in a mutter. She appeared more concerned that she was out of booze. The second, however, came in a bellow, while she and Benjamin Sheridan, her whipping-boy, locked eyes. She played him, rope-a-dope. Grimaldi shadowed those eyes in clubgoer’s purple, dead wrong for the wife of a history prof — and just right for her mosh pit of a marriage. Between flirty glances and harrowing stares, she kept everyone off-balance.

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In other words, Grimaldi got Albee’s game exactly. “Woolf” must come across as a seesaw battle. George and Martha are stuck with each other. They joke about living in “a bog,” and they must either kill the connection for good or uncover some redeeming purpose. Martha may attack first, even before the guests arrive, but there’s no drama unless the others man up against the “Earth Mother.”

That includes not only Nick but also Honey, his child-like wife, and downtown, each contributed powerfully. They strike their own balance: Katy Merriman gets a floppy, brandy-addled honesty into her cry that she wants a baby, and Sheridan, at last comprehending George and Martha’s tragedy, grows older before our eyes, his face devastated and chest collapsing.

It’s breathtaking and an emotional whipsaw. Credit must go to director Brad Dell, who came up with on-the-money blocking. Players pop on and off the furniture and in and out from behind the pillars. But the person most responsible for this show’s unflagging intensity is Mark Gruber. His George achieved extraordinary emotional range, getting stiffbacked rage into the funny lines and slumping heartbreak into his defensive maneuvers. One minute his vest and tie suggested a milquetoast, the next, a superhero. Whatever baggage Gruber might carry, in this role he flies free.

John DominiOverheard in the Lobby: Also this weekend, Actors Theater in Ames has the farce “No Sex Please, We’re British.” CV

John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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