One of the greatest actresses in Boston tackles one of the greatest roles ever written
Without a doubt, the most anticipated production of 2017 is the Lyric Stage Company’s revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which will star the tremendous Paula Plum as Martha.
Plum’s gifts are well known to Boston audiences, as is the impeccable eye of Scott Edmiston, who will be directing this production.
“Paula is widely regarded as one of the greatest talents in Boston,” says Edmiston, “and Martha is regarded as one of the greatest and most demanding roles ever written for an actress. It requires a depth of life experience and dazzling technique. You earn the right to play it.”
Just prior to rehearsals beginning, I had the honor of sitting down with Plum to discuss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
I assume that Martha is a role that you’ve had your eye on for a while now.
It’s funny because I went to a Catholic high school, and I was the president of the drama club, and it was one of the plays I proposed to the monsignor that I get to do. And of course, hands down, “No!” [laughs] But yeah, I’ve known this play all my life, practically. I directed it at Bridgewater State College. I’ve been inside this play a lot and I love it.
It must be a dream.
It’s a dream.
Martha is ferocious, but is it a challenge to be that ferocious and then still have the audience feeling for her at the end?
That’s the thing. Albee has written a character that is, on the page, in such pain that the ferociousness is so clearly the cover for something underneath. She’s also incredibly funny: The wit that fires back and forth between her and George is so sharp, barbed, pointed, and fun that I think there’s an instant identification with someone who’s both in pain and ferocious. And he so brilliantly reveals the exposition of that pain, the origins of it: Little pieces of information kind of slide in in parts of the play when you’re least expecting them. Obviously, you know that they’re alcoholics, but George sort of spills everything at the very end of the play and you start realizing that she’s had a very unhappy life.
What kind of pre-rehearsal preparation have you done?
For me, I’ve been working on technical things, like getting in shape for this part. I have been working out like a madwoman because it’s going to be a marathon. I’ve been taking voice lessons because it’s a vocal workout; there’s so much high-pitched conversation in this play—that’s a polite way of putting it—that I really needed to strengthen my voice. That’s just technically. I’ve been writing as Martha, I sort of keep a journal; I’ve read everything Uta Hagen has written on the part. One of Uta Hagen’s questions was, in her journal, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Do you think she just read Orlando?” So I got Orlando out and read it, do you know? I’m trying to find ways into the character. You never know what’s going to bubble to the surface and all that background work is so important.
What are you most curious about as you go into the rehearsal process?
I’m curious how my experience of the play in my head is going to change and compare with the experience of the other actors because, really, acting, as you know, is about what am I getting from you. When you memorize lines you have an idea how you’re going to say them and the other person changes that completely.
What are you most nervous about?
There’s a huge amount of expectation. Every single person that I’ve seen in the last three months has said, “I can’t wait!” I’m nervous about that because it’s kind of a female Hamlet, you know? The expectation. I have enough confidence in my own work to know that I have a good sense of who I think she is inside, but it’s a workout. Martha has tirades that are outrageous, so I’m concerned about putting that much out six times a week and twice on Saturdays.
Are you ready to birth her, at this point?
I’m ready to get into rehearsal. That’s where things happen and you make discoveries. A lot of that has to do with the environment and how you move through space. This is going to sound trite and ridiculous, but your relationship to the furniture, the walls, where the doors are. Where’s the freaking bar? That bar is my grounding place. The alcohol. Is it like a moth to a flame for me? What’s the movement around that bar? I’m eager to get in there.
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? FRI 1.13–THU 2.12 AT THE LYRIC STAGE COMPANY, 140 CLARENDON ST., BOSTON. LYRICSTAGE.COM