Interview with Pam MacKinnon, director of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

Director Pam MacKinnon calls "Woolf" an "American classic."

The umbrella turned inside out in the rain and the subway was late. Arriving to our coffee date sopping wet and quarter past the hour, we made for a pathetic sight — and it was hard not to imagine that Pam MacKinnon would have staged it better. But she was understanding as well, which is not surprising. Who else has a proven ability to sympathize with the humor and heartbreak of the human condition than the director of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (along with seven other Edward Albee plays in the past 11 years, not to mention last season’s triumphant “Clybourne Park”). Several paper towels later, we got down to the heart of the matter:

So talk to me about the process of getting involved in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

I’ve known Edward [Albee, playwright] for about 11 years, and this is the seventh play of his that I’ve directed. Molly Smith, the director of Arena Stage, called me up two, maybe three years ago. They were doing an Albee festival and she wanted me to direct “Virginia Woolf.” Obviously “Virginia Woolf” is one of Edward’s big, big, big, most well-known plays, and I had not directed that yet. We started to talk about casting, because that’s so important. I mentioned that I would love to see Amy Morton in the role of Martha. And that word got back to Steppenwolf Theatre. I spoke to [artistic director] Martha Lavey and she said, “Have you ever considered Tracy Letts in the role of George?” And I said, “Well that would be amazing.” And she said, “Well can it start at Steppenwolf? If Molly Smith would allow that, we could hop it over to Arena.” Edward had never let Steppenwolf do his plays, so it was my job to make sure Edward was on board with that.

This was now two seasons ago. We did a big, healthy run of this in Chicago. Then one week later the set was trucked across the country, then we set it up in D.C. That’s when Jeffrey Richards, who’s my producer for the Broadway production, came down — at the very tail end of our run in D.C. He’d produced “August: Osage County,” so both Amy and Tracy were really dear to him. But he didn’t come down to produce this play, he came down because he wanted to support them. And partway through watching this, he said, “I need to bring this to New York.” And it was his brainstorm that if we didn’t bring it right away, if we waited an extra year and a half, we could celebrate the golden anniversary of this play and open this play to the day of its original Broadway opening: Oct. 13, 1962.

And that timing just happened to work — you got a theater on Broadway for the exact date?

Producers jockey for theaters. Jeffrey had this in mind and wanted this to be its opening date. So he did what Broadway producers do. It’s at the top of the fall season, so theaters are available. And we scored the Booth, which is an amazingly intimate playhouse.

Did you find “Woolf” to be intimidating as Albee’s best-known work?

No, I was ready for it. I work a lot with writers, and it’s exciting to have an ongoing relationship and pop into a writer’s project. Was it easy? By no means. But it wasn’t intimidating. … He came out for two days of rehearsal at the end of our third week and saw what we were up to and gave me a handful of notes. He didn’t see it again until we were up and running in D.C. When I’ve worked with him on shows in New York, he comes to rehearsal on a bit more regular basis. But it’s an ongoing writer-director relationship. I talk to him on the phone, he dropped by rehearsal — it’s normal.

It’s darker content at a time when many shows are religious or uplifting or escapist. And this show is about the perils of using escapism to detach from the realities of life. So do you feel like this fits in right now and is relevant among what else is out there?

Obviously it’s a serious but incredibly funny and entertaining piece of theater. I mean we’re doing it 50 years later for a reason — it’s a classic American play. It’s a three-act play — it has more laughs, but also more emotional punches, than anything out there. You’re consistently entertained as you go through it. There’s an element of the big room getting entertained, which is inherently escapist. This is a play about two marriages, it’s a play about the price — but the necessity — of leading an authentic life. And those are big themes to wrestle with, and I think audiences go on a huge roller coaster ride — it’s pretty light at the beginning, but I hope people are moved by the end.

I heard someone ask, “Why don’t they just leave?” The older couple is really testing the younger couple, and the front door is upstage center, so I thought that was a valid question: How you get them to stay in the situation they get themselves into?

The cast and I have collectively and consistently signed up for living up to the first act’s title, which is “Fun and Games.” And there’s not that much dire going on. There is clearly tension between George and Martha (and it’s really specifically centered on George maligning her father, but that’s an old wound). [Then] Honey has to go powder her nose, and they’re gone for quite some time. And George is sort of batting Nick around, but it’s nothing Nick can’t handle. … They’re talking about their marriages, they’re talking very generically about woman — there’s not much to flee from. Nick, at the very start of that exchange with George, does suggest that he should leave, but George placates him: “Come on, let have another drink, let’s sit.” And then at the end of the second act, Honey is vomiting in the bathroom. So he can’t go, his wife is sick. So the play takes care of itself. As to the geography of the room, I wanted that upstage center door — I wanted George opening the door and Nick and Honey being right there as Martha’s saying: “F— you!” … So there’s the rationale for that.

Do you have any personal relationship with the themes in this show?

I feel a great deal of empathy for all these characters, that they’re stuck and that the accumulation of life’s disappointments between George and Martha have grown and grown and grown, and they’re stuck in this cycle. There’s something about the younger couple almost infecting George and Martha. In many respects I find Nick and Honey’s marriage more distressing than George and Martha’s. Because Nick and Honey don’t share anything, they don’t respect each other, there isn’t empathy or concern flowing between them. They haven’t invented anything together. George and Martha, they give kudos to each other when they score a good point. Nick and Honey never do anything like that. They don’t speak to each other. Is there anything personal I’m looking into? I think that we’ve all been in relationships — hopefully not to the degree — that have this sort of love-hate-I-need-you-but-this-isn’t-right-but-I-can’t-break-free-from-it. … I think there is something deliciously universal about this play.

So is this a romance?

Oh, absolutely. It’s a big love story. It’s a love story between George and Martha. They need and love each other. And I think that’s a big project of this production — that this love is always palpable.

Not to talk about the ending too much, but do you feel like the end is optimistic?

Absolutely. Absolutely. Dawn is breaking, there are no more games being played between George and Martha. It goes from “I’m cold. It’s late” to the comforting singing of the title song — and Martha answering the rhetoric of the song. I think it’s a new beginning.

Related:

Theater review: ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’


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