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Woolf Meets High Expectations

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Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre is on a hot streak. One of the reasons is its strong ensemble of actors. Certain faces at Steppenwolf are looking very familiar lately to regular audience members: Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Francis Guinan, Kate Arrington, Ian Barford. These actors are just a handful of the 43 members of the Steppenwolf ensemble, but they've been on the stage a lot over the last few years, proving time and again just how much they're capable of doing. (And of course, some of them do more than just act -- directing and writing plays, too.)

So, when Steppenwolf announced that two of its biggest stars, Letts and Morton, would be acting in Edward Albee's gut-wrenching classic, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, I was thrilled. It's surely one of the most highly anticipated productions of the 2010-11 Chicago theatrical season. When you get to know the work of certain actors, you look forward to seeing them take on a new challenge -- and Woolf is one towering challenge.

Directed by Pam MacKinnon, Steppenwolf's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? lives up to the high expectations. The Albee play is one of the great American dramas of the 20th century, a penetrating, discomfiting confrontation of a play. At many points, it's also quite funny, in a dark way, and this Steppenwolf production brings out all of the bitter humor. Each laugh comes with a twinge of regret.

As George, a history professor whose career and marriage are stuck in nightmarish doldrums, Letts nimbly shifts between this character's contradictory sides. One minute, he appears to be a cuckolded, cowardly, weak nebbish. Another, he lashes out with vicious cruelty.

As his wife, Martha, Morton excels at provoking the George character at every possible opportunity. Initially, Martha is a slightly less sympathetic character than George -- as the two seemingly match wits in a battle to see which can inflict more emotional wounds on the other -- but in the emotional climax of the third act, Morton finally makes us feel what this woman has gone through over more than 20 years of difficult marriage to bring her to this point. And it's devastating.

Woolf also features strong performances from two lesser-known actors, Carrie Coon and Madison Dirks, as the younger couple who are trapped in George and Martha's house during this cocktail party from hell. As Coon's character becomes progressively drunker over the course of the play, she often provides comic relief. But Coon also delivers one of this production's most powerful moments, her character's wail of anguish at hearing her secrets revealed.

Many people already know how Woolf ends with a revelation about George and Martha, but I won't spoil the surprise for those who haven't yet experienced this play. If you already know the surprise, it'll make watching George and Martha's interactions throughout the play an even more fascinating experience.

Over the past few years, Steppenwolf has opened excellent plays in December. In 2009, it was American Buffalo, one of the best theatrical productions in Chicago that year. With Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Steppenwolf has done it again.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs through Feb. 13 at Steppenwolf. See http://www.steppenwolf.org for tickets and details. (Photo by Michael Brosilow, courtesy of Steppenwolf.)