When Holly Twyford stars in a DC production, local theatergoers pay attention. Add veteran director Aaron Posner and one of the most complex plays of the 20th century housed in our city’s historic Ford’s Theatre to the mix, and the crowds will come.
Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will be at Ford’s through February 19, featuring an all-local cast including Twyford, Gregory Linington, Maggie Wilder and Danny Gavigan. Written in 1962, the Tony Award-winning play is set in the home of Martha and George, a middle-aged married couple with years of built up resentment toward one another. The acrimonious pair invite a younger couple, Honey and Nick, over for drinks after a faculty party. Soon, their guests are unknowingly pulled into Martha and George’s web of unhappiness.
Twyford, who plays Martha (most famously portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1966 film version), told me in a recent interview that she isn’t interested in Taylor’s interpretation of the role as she wraps her head around the character. In fact, when she mentions that she’s playing Martha and folks respond, “Oh, the Elizabeth Taylor role?”, she’s been tempted to respond with, “No, the Uta Hagen role actually.” Hagen played Martha in the 1962 Broadway production.
Instead, she’s chosen to dive into the role with few outside influences. The Helen Hayes Award winner and nominee, whose DC theatre career spans multiple decades, readily admits that she doesn’t fully understand Martha. And that’s okay.
“We’re complicated, we human beings,” Twyford says. “We are incredibly complex, and often completely paradoxical in our actions and emotions. And actors forget that sometimes. They say, ‘Well no, I need to know why I’m saying this. I need my objective. I need my motivation. I need my, you know, my verb.’”
The refreshingly honest actress and sometimes director says it has taken her a long time to learn that even as she explores a character and plumbs all of her complexities, she may still see a disconnect between the character’s behavior in different scenes, or even in the same scene. And to be comfortable with that disconnect.
As she strives to understand Martha and peel back her many layers, she’s sharing the experience with Posner. Twyford has worked with the director many times, and says its their mutual trust and open communication built over years of collaboration and friendship that has allowed them to tell this story onstage, and to tell it well. After reading lines for Woolf recently, she told Posner that just as she thought she had figured out the objective of one line, she’d read another four lines and the first wouldn’t make sense anymore. Suddenly, the lines would seem in direct contradiction to one another.
“And in some ways, that’s correct,” she says of the experience. “Because we are like that as human beings. We can change on a dime, you know? And that’s what I need to sort of keep figuring out. What is it all about? It’s really all about survival, isn’t it? What are we capable of as human beings?”
And as Twyford points out, we are capable of tremendous insult and rage, and a host of other negative emotions that are bubbling to the surface for Martha and George. Throughout the play, they say some pretty horrible, even cringeworthy, things to one another. The actress says audiences often struggle with their ruthless back-and-forth, wondering how they can say those unforgivable things and call each other such awful names.
“And yet they love each other,” she says. “They absolutely love each other, and they absolutely need each other. But in a way, they don’t think they deserve what they have. They’re in so much pain for so many reasons.”
At this point in our interview, the actress notes that our conversation is turning into a philosophical discussion. And of course, being the Twyford fangirl that I am, I loved every second of it. We kept talking, about what it means to make audiences uncomfortable by watching a play that doesn’t have a resolution, and how that can also be difficult for the players onstage. Modern-day audiences are used to seeing loose ends tied up, and Twyford fully admits those are the stories she loves too.
“I love to see good beat evil. I love to see a happy ending. And [Woolf] is not tied up at the end in a nice little bow by any means. This is a play that is really about the journey.”
Twyford is warm and cheeky and sincere, and has an infectious dry laughter that makes you feel like you’re in on something pretty remarkable. Talking to her about the human experience, and how to portray a mere snippet of one troubled couple’s incredibly contentious relationship in a three-hour play, was inspiring. She’s up to the challenge of playing Martha, and as an audience member, I can’t wait to accept the challenge of absorbing a truly human interaction and knowing full well it won’t come with a happy ending.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will be at Ford’s Theatre from January 21 to February 19. Tickets start at $15. Under 35 Night falls on February 3, and Meet and Mingle on February 12.
Ford’s Theatre: 511 10th St. NW, DC; 202-347-4833; www.fords.org
On Tap would like to congratulate Ford’s Theatre on raising more than $88,000 on behalf of local charity Food & Friends through its production of A Christmas Carol this winter. Learn more at www.fords.org.