Tracy Letts Is the Harried Married Man in Broadway's New Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

By Harry Haun
September 23, 2012

The American theatre's most booze-happy, vicious married couple, George and Martha, of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, are celebrating their 50th anniversary on Broadway. Actor Tracy Letts shares his side of the story.



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Who'd have thought the university president's daughter and that old bog in the history department would make it to the big five-oh? (Who'd have thought they'd make it through the night?) Anyone who's ever sat through those early a.m. "fun and games" of theirs would give them two weeks, if not minus two weeks.

Surprisingly, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? really is a love story, though an odd one because just the opposite seems to be going on: a couple of academic relics behave badly in front of youthful versions of themselves (a handsome new addition to the biology department and his brandy-addled wife).

Come Oct. 13 these marital wars begin anew as Virginia Woolf returns to Broadway exactly 50 years to the date after the premiere of the original version. Directed by Clybourne Park's Pam MacKinnon, it stars a quartet of Steppenwolf players from Chicago: Tracy Letts and Amy Morton as George and Martha, and Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon as Nick and Honey.

All but Morton are making their Broadway bows — even Letts, who already has a Tony for writing his Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County, which showed Morton off to Tony-nominated advantage. Reports on this new Woolf from early engagements in Chicago and Washington, DC, indicate that the bookworm has turned and it's finally George's play. "Revelation," said The New York Times.

A red-dirt kicker from Durant, OK, Letts begs to differ with this praise. "Y'know, I read that stuff, and I frankly didn't understand it," he sighs, mystified. "When we sit down to work on a show at Steppenwolf, the approach is the same: you start on page one, try to figure out who these people are, what they want and how they get it — simple questions — and we fill in the blanks. There was never any discussion during rehearsal about 'It's normally done this way, but we're going to do it this way.' We never talked about it in those terms. We just talked about real people, so when it comes out in the wash that this is a very different George or a very different dynamic, I sorta go, 'No. Really? It doesn't feel like it to me when I'm up there.'"

Amy Morton and Tracy Letts
photo by Michael Brosilow
He does cut himself a little slack. "I think one of the things that happens is that you bring your own personality to any role that you play. It's an odd mix of the character you try on as well as the person you are. I'm sure that a lot of my personality comes out when I play George. Maybe, in that regard, I'm unusual casting, but it sure feels like a real relationship and a real marriage when I'm playing with Amy."

There's a reason: Morton and Letts are the Comden and Green of Chicago — teamed so many times they're taken for marrieds. "We counted it up not too long ago. It seems to me this is our eighth time as husband and wife. We've done it so often at Steppenwolf our theatregoers think we're a real couple. That's not the case. Amy's happily married, but we're close as friends and collaborators. Actually, we played husband and wife before we met — in a Dolly Parton movie [1992's Straight Talk] — and we had no scenes together."

Their first coupling with Woolf was at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre in 2004. Margo Skinner, who died a year later in production for Moonlight and Magnolias at Manhattan Theatre Club, was Martha to his George, and Morton directed the piece.

"Margo used to say it's more like a football game than a play. Sometimes it's 'Well, that play didn't go very well. Time for the next play. Sometimes you punt, and sometimes you score a touchdown.' It was my first time to do the show and her third. She said, 'If this is the kind of role you're suited for, you'll find yourself doing this more than once. Consider this your first stab at it, getting ready for the other productions you'll do in your life.' It turned out to be true. Eight years ago, I was a little too young for George. Now I'm pretty much the right age for the character, and those additional productions did help to prepare me to do it on Broadway."

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is Broadway's eternal battle royal. Without fail, George and Martha always make the Tony running (Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen in 1963, Ben Gazzara and Colleen Dewhurst in 1977, Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner in 2005). When Mike Nichols committed them to film, they were up for Oscars (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor). Sometimes they win (Hill, Hagen, Taylor, Irwin).

"Maybe we can break that streak," cracks Letts.

(This feature appears in the September 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)