Who’s afraid of Edward Albee?

by Walter Pierce

Not Lafayette’s Lauren-Reilly Eliot Co., which opens one of the celebrated American playwright’s most challenging works Thursday at Cité des Arts.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf features, from left, Andrew Mills (Nick), Cayla Zeek (Honey), Danny Ladmirault (George) and Caroline Helm (Martha).

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf isn’t your typical community theater fare. Clocking in at just under three hours in three acts on a single set, playwright Edward Albee’s 1962 Tony- and Pulitzer winner is a dialogue-intensive tiptoe along the edge of bitterness, sarcasm, reconciliation and dissolution. It’s emotional cadences spike and tumble as it probes not just a relationship, but the American psyche. And it’s as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.

Lafayette’s Lauren-Reilly Eliot Company is diving into this abyss, beginning with a “pay-what-you-can” preview Thursday night at Cité des Arts in Downtown Lafayette and running Thursdays-Sundays through Jan. 31. The production’s Friday (Jan. 15) opening will include complimentary jambalaya and refreshments, because you can’t squirm on an empty stomach.

“Audiences will essentially be thinking about this play for weeks,” promises Cooper Helm, one of the three-year-old company’s founders. “There is so much to take in. When Albee writes, there are layers and layers of what he is saying. What is on the surface most of the time is a metaphor for what he is really saying or doing. In fact, he makes the audience feel as though they are a character in the play — very ingenious to say the least.”

Founded in 2012 by Helm and Scott Gremillion, the company takes its name from its founders’ children. Virginia Woolf isn’t the first time the company has stuck its nose in difficult scripts. Past productions include Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and a theatrical rendition of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Helm and Gremillion have alternated as directors of the company’s dozen productions that have included nearly three score local actors. Helm takes the helm for Virginia Woolf.

“It’s incredibly challenging theatre,” he acknowledges. “This is a serious drama, but the comedy of the play is vast. What make great drama is great comedy — to take the audience from one extreme emotion to the next opposite emotion in a millisecond is theatre at its best, and Albee is the master.”

Even while the play is demanding in its dialogue and emotional heft, it is Spartan in its accouterments: just four actors and a single set. But don’t let that fool you: Getting it right with less often presents nagging difficulties.

“It would seem as though it’s easy, but no set done right ever is,” Helm adds. “To get to the details in terms of set, lighting, sound takes many, many hours. And in this case no different: We’ve logged well over 100 hours on the technical side, and have several more to go. We want our audiences to take a vacation from reality when they come to our show, and to achieve that, again, takes hard work and fortitude. We like to say this: If it’s easy, it’s probably not as good as it can be. Great work never comes easy. I believe that if you aren’t at some point getting frustrated or having some sort of a mental block along the way, you probably aren’t trying hard enough.”

Helm is sharing the angst of Virginia Woolf with his sister, Caroline Helm, a Lafayette social worker by avocation and a talented musician (The Figs) and producer (Nue Moon Review) by the grace of God. Caroline Helm plays the role of embittered wife Martha — a role made famous, as in Oscar-winning, on screen by Elizabeth Taylor opposite Richard Burton’s George.

“I think I was born to be an embittered middle-aged wife,” Caroline Helm jokes. “Like it or not, I think Martha embodies and externalizes much of the internal frustrations felt by many American women, especially at that time; so she is not that hard to connect to.”

“I believe most people have felt the emotions of an embittered middle aged housewife; we just have to tap into them and be willing to let others witness them,” Caroline adds. “I have created back stories to the character, using my own life and stealing from others. The great thing about acting is that you are encouraged to feel and showcase all the feelings that the world asks you to repress.”

The cast is rounded by Danny Ladmirault (George), Andrew Mills (Nick) and Cayla Zeek (Honey). The latter two actors play the young couple (un)fortunate enough to be witness to George and Martha’s emotional and psychological jousting.

“This play is layered and fascinating and is an icon of American and world theatre,” Cooper Helm notes. “Albee uses an embittered married couple as a vehicle for his larger commentary on an embittered, discontent and incomplete American society. It is no coincidence that George is a history professor and that ‘patterns of history’ are a recurring theme.”

Click here to order tickets ($16) or call (337) 291-1122.