I was 16 the spring that Edward Albee came to Lexington, Virginia. Lexington at that point was a rural county seat still unconnected by interstates to the greater world. But it was home to two colleges and the crossroads of two old Indian trails turned two-lane U.S. highways, over which tractor-trailers labored endlessly en route from, say, Richmond, Virginia to Richmond, Indiana or wherever.
It was 1962. Albee, who died last week, came to Lexington at the behest of a theatrical genius named Cecil Jones, who happened to be the director of the local university’s rather humble theatre. Based in an old shoe factory at the edge of campus, the theatre was home to the Washington & Lee Troubadours, a proud but ragtag group who performed everything from Shakespeare to Giradoux in a space that had a catwalk for a lighting booth, no wing space, a costume loft that doubled as a unisex dressing room, tattered folding seats for the audience, precious little heat in winter and stifling temperatures the rest of the year.
Albee was an emerging leader of the avant-garde theatre of the absurd in New York, intriguing critics and baffling the public. He came to W&L as a guest artist/professor for 10 days, gave one public lecture, and sat in one of the Troubs’ fraying seats as two young men took the stage – juniors, and already veterans who’d played Iago and Roderigo just two months earlier on that same stage. They launched bravely, or perhaps even a bit casually, into their first reading as Peter (John Dunnell) and Jerry (Tim Morton) on The Zoo Story’s park bench.
Albee immediately stopped them. Gave instructions. And again. And again. The stopping and starting went on for what seemed like an agonizing half hour or more – it’s a one-act play – and Albee wouldn’t budge beyond the opening lines till they had it to his satisfaction, while the rest of us out in the house squirmed in empathetic agony.
There were no women at W&L in those days, so townswomen, professors’ wives and high school students took the Troubs’ female roles. I was by then more or less a regular, and as it turned out, I would end up understudying the role of Grandma in The American Dream, Albee’s sendup of post-WW II American domestic life, and also a one-act, paired with The Zoo Story.
We didn’t even GET to a reading of The American Dream that night, as I recall, or maybe I’d gone home by then to do my high school homework – but from that production of Dream hangs a tale.
Here it is: Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf opened at the Billy Rose Theater in New York that fall – some six months after his stay in Lexington – and it centered, of course, on the dysfunctional life of a small college town.
As it happens, Woolf’s four characters are the savagely bored alcoholic academic couple George and Martha, and the newly arrived young prof Nick and his wife, Honey. By then, Albee had already done at least one stint as a college professor, so he’d seen the backstage of academic life. But as it also happens, the lead male role in our American Dream was a devastatingly handsome young man named – in real life – Nick; his mother was played by a faculty wife named Martha; and another faculty wife, also associated with the production, often turned her smooth Southern accent upon her husband, addressing him with affectionate exasperation as “HonnnnEEYYYY,” when he’d return from the supermarket or hardware store without some crucial item.
Coincidence? If so, such an intriguingly close one. Only George – Richard Burton in the film – is unaccounted for. My theory: Albee had the play all but written. Perhaps he’d already named the George and Martha characters after our nation’s First Couple, and the rest fell into place. Or maybe that trope suggested itself in the wake of Lexington. It’s the stuff of myth.
As for me, I spent the spring trying vainly to memorize Grandma’s role, when it turned out that the elderly frat-house mom who’d been cast in the part couldn’t keep the endlessly repetitive dialogue straight. Neither could I. In the end she got it, and was her usual wickedly clever self on stage. By then, Albee was gone, to continue streaking across New York’s artistic sky, a theatrical meteor – fixed in my 16-year-old memory, based on that first night, as a cosmic jerk. But then, he was so young then too – just 33, a raw and edgy troubadour himself, who had already penned these lines for posterity:
Sometimes it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.