After everyone shuffled to their seats in the intimate, dark room at the B Street Theatre for their production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, I felt the general malaise of a child who felt they were, perhaps, about to suffer through something very much above their heads (“theater”) and that there was only the slight chance of a reward at the end for good behavior (snacks). Confession: I am not a person for whom theater is marketed. I am fidgety, have the attention span of a hyperactive corgi, I get up to pee too much and just ain’t civilized like them theater folk.
And then the announcer came on stage and said something that made me lean in, hard.
“Rumor has it this was the winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1963 … but it was turned down for being too obscene.”
They had my attention.
Enter: George and Martha, played by Kurt Johnson and Elisabeth Nunziato, convincingly portraying a well-lubricated married couple as they return home from a party. They seem playful at first—but like an onion that has just been sliced into, we start to see very quickly that their marriage has many layers, many of which are rotten.
After he pours himself and Martha several drinks, George learns that they will be hosting a young married couple, Honey and Nick (played by Dana Brooke and Nunziato’s IRL husband Jason Kuykendall). Despite the fact that it’s 2 a.m. and clearly Martha and George would rather argue with each other in their living room, shit really gets weird once the guests show up.
Now, I don’t know much about theater. But I do know when I am immediately drawn into a story and forget that I am in a room full of strangers or that things called smartphones exist, that I am witnessing something special—something that is timeless and as relevant to modern relationships as OKCupid or a Facebook relationship status. And considering the famous play involves only four characters, it makes sense that the actors chosen for the roles would be longtime members of the B Street company. But they had big shoes to fill, particularly Nunziato as the boisterous and manipulative Martha, who previously has been portrayed by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Kathleen Turner.
In fact, Nunziatio could easily be considered Sacramento’s own Elizabeth Taylor. After starting her professional acting career around age 18, she managed to get her union card by the time she turned 21 and credits a lot of her success to her mom.
“She loved the B Street,” says Nunziato. “She saw the shows a minimum of nine times! She loved everyone there.”
Nunziato says that her mom spent a lot of personal time with the fellow artists and when she passed away, they even had her memorial on the B Street Theatre stage.
“We’ve grown up together,” she says. “The artists here are amazing. The work is amazing. We’ve had all these seminal life experiences together.”
Nunziato first met Brooke on 9/11.
“And which comes first—the quality of the work or the relationships? And I think it’s actually forged in the work. I hope that doesn’t sound callous! I mean it from the heart.”
Nunziato says that she’s found a special place in B Street. “I think it’s unique. There aren’t acting ‘companies’ anymore in theater—I mean, it’s rare. We’re moving into our third decade together.”
All the buzz about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf mentions how Martha’s character is the type of role that every actress dreams of landing. Dave Pierini, Artistic Producer of B Street, comments, “this show is every actor’s Mount Everest.” And Nunziato climbs that mountain with such a convincing gusto that I am curious to know how she revs herself up for such a display of energy on stage. “Jason [her husband and co-star] and I started clearing the dark a few months ago,” she says. “I’ve missed quite a few birthdays!”
Before opening night, Nunziato says they ran through the play four times in 24 hours—which was no small feat when the play clocks in around three hours long.
“That was fairly crushing!” she admits. “And we’re not really precious about that kind of stuff, but this is unique in that regard. You can hear it now—as I’m talking my voice has dropped a couple of octaves since last week!”
She’s right—the Nunziato that I hear now is far more subdued than the feisty Martha I heard bickering with her husband, George, as they painfully (and humorously) squawk at each other on stage like drunken Ivy League geese to the chagrin of their visitors, Honey and Nick, who have their own problems to quietly tackle. And Nunziato says they’re in it to win it until the play run ends on Oct. 29.
And how does she wind down? “The greatest challenge—I think this can be said for all performers—because we ‘peak’ when the rest of the world is winding down. We take a 24 hour day and bifurcate it.”
Nunziato explains that it’s in her nature to be lucid when the rest of us may be in PJs nodding off on our sofas to reruns of Golden Girls (c’mon, I can’t be the only one). “My parents were night workers,” she says. “I was sort of born into that temperament! But if you can control it, you have to kind of ‘power down’ in those late afternoon hours, you can ‘power up’ and start your day over again. Caffeine is also a crutch.”
I tell her caffeine is my savior. After blabbing about shops like Old Soul and Identity, Nunziato says she also enjoys those shops, particularly Identity because it’s a stone’s throw from Ink Eats and Drinks, which has become the savior for the cast because of their late-night kitchen offerings (and they also bring their tasty goods to B Street on occasion). Conveniently, the revamped B Street Theatre—rebranded as The Sofia—will be located nearby on Capitol Avenue and 27th Street when the company moves in 2018.
Nunziato says that move is a long time coming. I confess to her that I read an interview she and her castmates gave about looking forward to the new building—particularly the showers (currently there are none, and the cast members must share bathrooms with audience).
“Showers aren’t really a luxury, they’re necessary,” she says that a lot of the scenarios and makeup they perform in can become a hazard if they can’t wash off quickly. “We had an actor in blue full-body paint, and I mean—what do you do in that case?”
After asking her what they did do for the poor guy in blue, she laughed and said she didn’t want to go into detail, but that it was quite the show. “And because we share audience bathrooms, our body clocks are timed with audience flow,” she says. She looks forward to the new theater and not having another audience member wait for a bathroom ever again. (If we knew there were guys blue’ing themselves in there, we’d be forgiving. I promise.)
I ask Nunziato the age-old question: who inspires her? She can’t really say. “The most valuable tool you can hand someone is the knowledge that they are an entirely unique entity the moment they walk in the room,” she says. “You’re never in competition with other artists. You’re only in competition with yourself. At the end of the day, you’re the only person that can be the best version of you. All of your internal emotional workings, life experience and opinions are unique, and you’re applying those things every time you open your mouth, or make a writing decision or directorial decision.
“Sometimes people will start out with the idea that they are going into this because they want to be someone else, but you always end up circling around back to yourself,” Nunziato says.
You need to know that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is more than about booze and bickering and delusion (I mean, that’s enough to hook me). It’s actually funny, too. “I’m so proud of how funny this show is!” Nunziato laughs. “A great piece of writing is always funny as well as heartbreaking—because you can’t have one without the other.”
After his death in September 2016, NPR wrote an obituary for Edward Albee that said he wasn’t a fan of explaining what his plays were about. In fact, he would become “uncooperative—and occasionally downright hostile.” The best way to enjoy them, he advised, was without baggage. “Pretend you’re at the first play you’ve ever seen,” he suggested. “Have that experience.”
And so I did.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is now playing at the B Street Theatre (2711 B St., Sacramento) through Oct. 29, 2017. For tickets and to see the lineup for the company’s 2018 season, go to Bstreettheatre.org.
**This piece first appeared in print on pages 22 – 23 of issue #249 (Sept. 25 – Oct. 9, 2017)**