Who’s In Awe of Nancy Palk?

diego matamoros and nancy palk

I spent my undergraduate degree at Dalhousie University in Halifax listening to an assortment of students from Toronto raving about Soulpepper. We would speak about Canadian Theatre and the development of the Regionals, or we would discuss the emergence of Stratford and our experiences seeing Anne of Green Gables when we were eight and Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Alex when we were twelve, and there would always be those who looked at us, with perchance a touch of superiority in their eye, and reiterated that regardless of what we said or knew or thought we knew, the future of the Canadian Theatre was Soulpepper.
Since moving to Toronto in 2007, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (playing until October 24th, 2009) is the tenth Soulpepper production that I have seen and it is brilliantly worthy of the praise that my Torontonian schoolmates once lavished on the company. Wow. Edward Albee’s 1962 play has become the stuff of legends and his two formidable leading characters, George and Martha, have become iconic for actors, for scholars, and for theatre audiences all over the world. As Nancy Palk writes in her programme note, “The part of Martha lay before me, one of those iconic parts you can never “achieve.” You know the movie, you saw it with someone who was perfect, you’ll never come close to that extraordinary character; her heart, her pain, her disappointments, her abandon, her stamina, her belly laugh… her ability to keep on drinking! The summit of the mountain is too high, too distant. If ever there was a time to be fit and loose, the time is now. No time for fear.”
It is Soulpepper Theatre that gives Toronto Canadian productions of these epic, classic works with the richest of theatrical and artistic histories, and here they are served up for us to enjoy and experience and often to come to a greater understanding of why these great playwrights, like Albee, like Chekhov and Ibsen, Beckett, Mamet and Pinter, Williams and Stoppard have become the theatrical giants that they are. On the surface Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf can be encapsulated in a single sentence: George and Martha invite Nick and Honey over for a late-night social engagement involving drinking and games. Yet, these four characters are unrestrained in their complexities, their idiosyncrasies and their power to destroy each other and themselves. This play is Edward Albee’s uncontested masterpiece, but I also think that it is one of the greatest plays ever written.
Soulpepper is a theatre company that is firmly rooted in actors and artists creating their own work, so it is no surprise that when it comes to staging such epic productions, Soulpepper always provides some of Toronto’s most talented performers to bring theatre history’s classic characters to life. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf boasts of four exceptional performances by Diana Donnelly (Honey), Tim Campbell (Nick), Nancy Palk (Martha) and Diego Matamoros (George). Campbell and Donnelly’s Nick and Honey arrive at Martha and George’s house as Brad and Janet arrive at the Frankenstein Place. They are remarkable in their adherence to the social norms and traditions of ambitious, athletic, handsome biologist and sweet, innocent, placating homemaker. Campbell is brilliantly icy as he paces about a room that quickly begins to feel too small, and becomes increasingly vile and callous as the evening wares on. Donnelly is equally strong as Honey, a woman whose social mask is so restricting, even her body attempts to purge itself of the brandy which represents her potential to think and feel and experience life for herself.
Nancy Palk and Diego Matamoros are at their very best in this play as they spar, and regroup, and find another strategy for the assault and the attack and the defense. Albee has written this play to cut deep into the open wounds of love and marriage, but the plan of attack is always through humor. Indeed, Diana Leblanc’s direction and Palk and Matamoros’ interpretations lend themselves to this production being very funny, yet in the humor there is the absurd and in the absurd there is the gut wrenching anguish from which Martha and George seek refuge and absolution. I felt like I had been in Martha and George’s home once before, as it seemed vaguely familiar to me. Indeed, as I watched the play unfold, I seemed to know the two characters in some distant, different form. I realized that I was reminded of the set of a sitcom, like I Love Lucy or The Dyke Van Dyke Show, and that Palk’s Martha had elements of a deranged Carol Burnett, while Matamoros’ George was an extremely disillusioned Woody Allen. Honey and Nick are devoted to keeping up the appearance of their perfect marriage, as they were cast in these roles as children based on economics and convenience. In this production especially, I felt certain that George and Martha had known a love that Honey and Nick would never know. Honey and Nick may grow up and divorce one another, or they may remain in an embittered, loveless marriage of betrayals, but they will never attack one another with as much passion, wrath and revulsion as George and Martha who mourn the life they might have had if the world and its crippling expectations had not interfered.
One could write for years on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and only ever scratch the surface of its themes, imagery and the many interpretations it evokes. At Soulpepper, it is three hours of purely exquisite theatre and a demonstration that yes, indeed, the future of Canadian theatre owes a great deal of gratitude to Soulpepper.

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