Edward Albee's Mindscape

The acclaimed playwright (and part-time Coconut Grove resident) remains an unparalleled observer of our culture -- and a genuine stickler for details

"I may be far too protective of authors' rights, but someone's got to protect them," he continues, turning to the next playbill. A Delicate Balance won Albee his first Pulitzer Prize in 1967, then traveled to the Playhouse for the debut of its national tour. Alan Schneider, the director long associated with Albee's work until his death in a car accident in 1984, directed the play in both New York and Coconut Grove. (Also known as Samuel Beckett's premier American interpreter, Schneider was familiar with the Playhouse, having opened its first season in 1956 with the legendary Waiting for Godot.)

Albee opens to the cast page and recalls that Jessica Tandy as Agnes, Hume Cronyn as Tobias, and Rosemary Murphy as Claire reprised their Broadway roles in Miami. And he notes that not only did A Delicate Balance enjoy a Tony Award-winning revival on Broadway last year, but Rosemary Murphy undertook the part of Edna later in the run.

Slipping A Delicate Balance under the stack, he rifles through Seascape, the 1975 comic-drama that earned him his second Pulitzer. The play centers on the encounter between a human couple, Charlie and Nancy, vacationing at the seashore, and a lizard couple, Leslie and Sarah, who emerge from the ocean and surprise them. Albee directed the show himself during the 1985-86 inaugural season of Playhouse artistic director Arnold Mittelman. And he inspects the cover of 1987's Marriage Play, directed by Mittelman in 1992 in the theater's Encore Room. Missing is the playbill for The Man Who Had Three Arms, a work commissioned by the late Miami impresario Bob Herman and his New World Festival of the Arts. In the play, which opened in June 1982, Albee tackles the issue of fleeting fame in America and chastises the press for, as he puts it, "creating false gods." Although Miami News critic Bill von Maurer called it "outrageous, touching, and deliciously funny," when the show reached New York, critics almost uniformly panned it. While in Miami to direct the play's premiere at the Playhouse, Albee decided to buy a house in the South Grove, and he has spent at least two months a year here ever since.

Having perused the collection of old playbills, he leans back. The seat creaks; the sound reverberates through the empty auditorium. Up front, the Virginia Woolf set awaits. An appropriately massive living room from a rambling New England house in a university town, it features wooden moldings, a comfortably worn sofa and several chairs, a desk, shelves stuffed with books, and a liquor cart stacked with bottles whose spirits will exacerbate the war between George and Martha and Nick and Honey when they take the stage that night.

Virginia Woolf director Michael Wilson, an associate director at the Alley Theatre in Houston, met Albee in 1989 and considers him a mentor. In the past year and a half, Wilson has directed imposing dramas such as Tony Kushner's Angels in America, Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, and Anton Chekhov's The Seagull. He was at the Alley several years ago when Albee himself directed Virginia Woolf there. In Miami, Wilson, his actors, and Albee have been meeting throughout much of the rehearsal process. "After all that you would think this is surmountable," an exhausted Wilson says during an interview in the Coconut Grove Playhouse's main rehearsal room. "But this is the big one. This is Everest."

By preview night Wilson and his accomplished cast have scaled the heights to deliver an emotionally searing rendition that gives more dimension, wit, and heart than the Virginia Woolf interpretation known to most people: the 1966 Mike Nichols film adaption starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. (Albee says the movie is "famous and tough" but "not as funny as it should be.") On-stage at the Playhouse through this weekend, Elizabeth Ashley and Frank Converse star as the university couple who draw a new faculty member and his wife (William Westenberg and Angelica Torn) into an intricate maze of mental skirmishes fought with verbal weaponry. It is a multilayered production -- unrelenting, uncompromising, cerebral, subversive. Much like the mind of its author.

The unmistakable sounds of kids in a pack -- running footsteps, high-pitched voices -- intrude on the quiet of the theater. Albee steps down the row to the aisle and walks toward the stage to investigate. He looks up at the balcony, where a group of schoolchildren is being shepherded around by Playhouse staffer Fred Salancy as part of a class. "That's Edward Albee," Salancy tells them urgently. "He's the man who wrote Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Years from now a few of the children may retain the memory of meeting a legendary figure, but at the moment Albee is just a regular guy. "Yo!" they call down to him.

"Hey!" he calls back playfully. "You've got good seats, the best in the house."

He ambles back up the aisle, wearing shirt sleeves, loose-fitting trousers, and aviator glasses. It's easy to forget that this man who has been called the "elder statesman of the American theater" and a "living national treasure" by his peers has also been described by those who know him -- and by those who only know of him -- as seriously intimidating.

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