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Real-life couple not afraid of Albee play

by: ELLEN SPITALERI The Clackamas Repertory Theatre's production of

People think they know all about 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf,' but the upcoming Clackamas Repertory Theatre production has a few surprises in store.

Although the movie version focused on the dysfunctional marriage of the two main characters, playwright Edward Albee has said that the play is a love story, and that is how director David Smith-English decided to approach it.

Set designer Chris Whitten even constructed a stark, wrap-around setting that resembles 'a birdcage, where love birds sing a rather anxious tune,' Whitten noted.

Smith-English believes that the play has 'much more comedy than tragedy; it is very funny, in a black way.' He also noted that the version of the play he chose to direct was a revision that Albee did in 2005.

The play is set in the early 1960s in a small New England community with a fine arts college. Before the play begins, George, Martha, Nick and Honey have all been to a party that the president of the college has given for new and old faculty members.

'Martha is the daughter of the president and she has invited home two new people for drinks. It is 2:30 in the morning. Through a series of revelations and questions about relationships, when we finish up at dawn we have learned a great deal about the characters and about ourselves as well,' Smith-English said.

He added that before he chose the play, he talked to Doren Elias and K.B. Mercer, a married couple who have appeared in the past two seasons with CRT. He wanted to make sure they were on board for the demanding roles of George and Martha, which they were delighted to accept.

'We are in the right place in our careers and lives to take on these big, fearsome roles. It is demanding - we have to be at our Olympic best,' Elias said.

'We had to change our routines - it is like preparing for a marathon,' Mercer said, adding that she did not go back and watch the movie, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, because she did not want to be influenced by it at all.

'We wanted to avoid the traps - those roles are so ingrained in people's minds. But this is a different version,' Elias noted.

Characters

Martha 'lives in a place that is harsh and difficult. She is discontented and in a real fight for her life, battling alcoholism. She is frustrated, caught in a home where she can't fulfill any of her ambitions,' Mercer said.

The character is in her early 50s and lives in a time 'when she could not have a career. Her life depended on the success of her husband.'

George, a history professor at the local college, has been married to Martha for a long time and he is 'in such a rut that he can't succeed. He has a failed novel that he burned, his ambition is waning, and he sees younger men coming in and taking over,' Elias said.

So what is it like, being a married couple and playing the iconic roles of George and Martha?

'We talked about it before we started rehearsals. We decided that every night we'd kiss in the lobby. We have been very careful with each other at home - we both know what we are going through and we are careful to not let that spill over. It has been a magnificent experience and we support and help each other,' Mercer said.

Elias said he thought the roles would be harder to play if the director cast two people who were not married to each other.

'The big thing is the dynamic between us two,' he added.

'These two people know each other really well - they are a fascinating couple and very funny. There is a lot of humor and love - they love each other desperately. Anybody who is married will recognize their own marriage' through the course of the play, Mercer said.

Emotional experience

What has been interesting to Elias and Mercer is the reaction of some of their peers to the news that the two were cast in 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.'

'People have congratulated me on the role, but they told me they won't come and see the play, because it scares them; it would be an emotional thing for them. But people will be refreshed by seeing it again, and genuinely surprised by the play - it is truly an American classic, a rare piece of perfect writing,' Elias said.

Both actors said they have spent a great deal of time memorizing the lines to get them exactly right.

'The lines have been murder, but it is such hot dialogue. The words feel good in the mouth; they were written for an actor in a vernacular that is so conversational, but when you get them wrong, you really feel it,' Elias said.

Mercer added, 'Albee's a genius - as I was spending time with the words, they just started to flow. The more I work on the piece, the more I am astounded by the beauty of the words.'

Fast Facts

• Clackamas Repertory Theatre presents 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf,' by Edward Albee, directed by David Smith-English.

• The show runs Sept. 23 to Oct. 9, with a special-priced preview on Sept. 22. Shows are on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.

• Clackamas Community College's Osterman Theatre/Niemeyer Center, 19600 Molalla Ave., in Oregon City.Tickets $12 to $22 online at Clackamasrep.org or call the box office at 503-594-6047.

• Cast: Doren Elias, George; K.B. Mercer, Martha; Dennis Kelly, Nick; and Annie Rimmer, Honey.

• Reed College Theatre professor Kathleen Worley will provide commentary at 6:45 p.m. before the Saturday evening performances. The lecture is free to attendees.