This past week has been nothing but Patrick Stewart stories. All my friends seem to have just sat opposite the British actor at restaurants, or watched him buying groceries, or run into him downtown. Everyone wants to share their Patrick Stewart story and I always feel obligated to one-up them, as mine is very good: I made Patrick Stewart cry. Tears trump groceries, and tears trump restaurant encounters. "All right," my friends sullenly respond. "What did you do to Patrick Stewart to make him cry?"
All I did was ask him a question. The publicity department at the Guthrie Theater, knowing that most Minnesota theater critics would saw off their own hands to meet a celebrity, set up a series of interviews with Stewart and Mercedes Ruehl, who are starring in the theater's production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The backstage of the Guthrie was brimming with activity on the appointed morning, as excited reporters ducked in clutching notebooks. I was hustled into a dressing room with Ruehl, who admitted that she had not yet begun rehearsal and that her preparation so far had consisted mostly of reading through the play a few times. I was now two minutes into a half-hour interview with the Academy and Tony Award-winning actress, and all I was going to ask her about was the rehearsal process, so I was already out of questions. We wound up discussing acting for the remainder of the time (my big scoop: She still gets stage fright), and then I was hustled into a separate room to talk with Patrick Stewart.
He talked passionately about the play. He told me about overhearing David Esbjornson discussing directing Virginia Woolf for the Guthrie when both worked on the Broadway run of Arthur Miller's The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, whereupon Stewart cornered Esbjornson and told him that he desperately wanted to play George. Stewart talked of a previous production of the play in which he was called in to star at the last moment, and how the role had transformed his approach to theater, opening him to a way of performing that was more spontaneous and direct than he had previously experienced. The play was a tremendous success, and was set to move to London's West End when Stewart was called to Hollywood to play Capt. Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation. The choice, Stewart told me, was obvious but painful: He signed a six-year Star Trek contract, but has continued to look back on Virginia Woolf as one of his defining moments as an actor.
This is a lovely story, and it prompted a rather innocuous follow-up question from me: "It's been 15 years since that production; what are you hoping to get from this one?" Stewart was quiet for a moment, and then his eyes welled up with tears. "For some reason," he said, dabbing at them, "that question fills me with emotion."
Describing George, Stewart said, "He's an assistant professor of history at a New England college, and he's very unhappy," and this is about as good a description as any. Stewart plays George with a bent back, a hideous comb-over, and a milquetoast shuffle that suggests a man who disappears right into the woodwork in social settings--exactly as his wife, Martha (played as sexy, silly, and utterly disgusted by Ruehl), describes: "I swear...if you existed, I'd divorce you," she complains at the beginning of the play. But the evening is about to go famously bad for George and Martha when a new faculty member and his wife (played, mostly as comic relief, by Bill McCallum and Carrie Preston) show up for after-hours drinks.
Besides sharing a relationship based on spite and savagery, George and Martha share one enormous lie about their son--a lie that ranks as one of the most famous in modern theater, and the climactic destruction of that lie was enough to both earn playwright Edward Albee a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 1962 and guarantee he would not win that prize (no prize for drama was awarded that year, and two members of the Pulitzer committee resigned in protest). Milquetoast though he may seem at the beginning of the play, Stewart's George is a man of enormous resourcefulness and hidden rage, and both explode in this production's climax. Stewart carefully, solemnly dismantles the lie that George shares with Martha as she clutches at him, sobbing, and protesting that he cannot do this. As written, George ends his monologue with an innocuous phrase: "How do you like that?" Stewart's reading of this line is terrifying, exposing all of the passion suggested in our interview by his few tears. Stewart does not read the line, he roars it, eyes locked on Ruehl, face inches from hers. She does not like it, and neither do we, because it is an awful thing to see--but there it is, that's Virginia Woolf: terrifying and awful, exactly as it must be.