Director’s not afraid of facing Albee’s ‘Woolf’

Thomas Engstrom is no stranger to Kent State University at Trumbull Theatre.

He started at Kent-Trumbull as a student in 1965 and was instrumental in growing the theater program from a club to part of the curriculum there. But he hasn’t directed on campus in at least a decade.

He didn’t pick an easy show for his return. Engstrom will direct Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” for a two-weekend run beginning Friday.

Engstrom said he didn’t hesitate when Eric Kildow, director of the theater program at Kent-Trumbull, asked if he would be interested.

“Oh my gosh, for a director, it’s a hard play, so many multilayered characters and they’re so well-defined,” he said. “Edward Albee is a unique playwright. He brings a lot to it, and I guess I said yes because it was a real challenge.”

The domestic drama made its Broadway debut in 1962 and won five Tony Awards, including best play. It’s been revived three times on Broadway (the 2012-13 production won the Tony for best revival of a play) and a planned revival in 2020 was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 1966 film version was equally acclaimed, earning 13 Oscar nominations and winning five.

The three-act play with a running time of about three hours takes place in the home of a college professor, George, and his wife, Martha, who is the daughter of the college’s president. Martha invites a young professor, Nick, and his wife, Honey, over for a drink … which turns into several drinks and volatile confrontations.

The increasingly ugly exchanges between George and Martha get much of the attention, but Engstrom believes Nick is the central character.

“Nick is sort of a cocky newcomer to this college town,” Engstrom said. “He’s scored this big, big win at the president’s party, and he’s been invited for afterparty drinks (at the house of the president’s daughter). He has no idea what he’s walking into. George is an expert at games. He loves toying with people. He doesn’t do much at the party, but certainly when he gets home he does. He runs Nick over the coals. He’s merciless to him … A lot of it is about Nick even though George and Martha drive the action.”

Playing George and Martha is real-life married couple Peter Byrne and Deborah Byrne. Peter Byrne, an associate professor of English at Kent-Trumbull, is a frequent performer in productions there. Deborah Byrne studied at American Repertory Theatre Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University and was a member of Actor’s Equity, but this is her first production in 25 years.

“Peter Byrne, he’s nailing it, and his wife, Deborah, she has training as an actress and boy does it show,” Engstrom said. “The two of them do such a great job as George and Martha, and they have the advantage of being able to rehearse with each other at home.”

The younger couple is played by Harmon Andrews and Jessica Ludovici.

“Nick’s mousy little wife is anything but, and Jessica Ludovici is just splendid as this mousy little wife who tears into Nick a couple times, telling him what’s what. She doesn’t let him get away with anything.

“Just (last week), Harmon got the arc of Nick perfectly. He did such a good job. I’m thrilled with where he took Nick.”

One of the challenges Engstrom has been working with the cast on is making visible the impact of the drinking over the course of the evening.

“Martha and Honey are just pouring it down their gullets,” he said. “That has to affect what they’re doing, but you don’t want to make it two sloppy drunks on stage.”

If you go …

WHAT: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through March 10

WHERE: Kent State University at Trumbull, 4314 Mahoning Ave. NW, Champion

HOW MUCH: Tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for students and senior citizens and are available online at www.kent.edu/trumbull/theatre and by calling 330-675-8887.


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