STOCKBRIDGE — Just-turned-50 architect Martin Gray, the pivotal character in Edward Albee's "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?" would appear to have it all: A secure, loving marriage of 22 years to his college sweetheart, Stevie; and a hugely successful career. He not only has he has just been awarded the Pritzker Prize — "architecture's version of the Nobel," his friend, Ross, points out; and he's been chosen to design a 200 billion dollar dream city of the future funded by a large electronics corporation "set to rise in the wheat fields of our Middle West," Ross says.
The living room in which the play's action unfolds over an intermissionless one hour and 45 minutes (designed with pinpoint judgment by Randall Parsons in director Eric Hill's impeccably crafted, richly nuanced, go-for-broke production at Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre) is a testament to civilization, taste and class, without ostentation. There is just the faintest suggestion of something primal in the rich earth tone of the walls, a painting hanging on the rear wall and some of the black objets d'art perfectly positioned on the shelves and end tables. It is an environment that, in its whites, off-whites, pale grays smacks of something pristine, pure, untouched, solid and permanent.
But by the time this roiling, unsettling drama has run its course, all of that will have changed. Nothing— not the room; not the people in it — will be the same.
The play — which, in Hill's production features two performances at the center, David Adkins as Martin and an unrelentingly haunting Jennifer Van Dyck as his wife, Stevie — is a masterpiece of construction. It begins disarmingly enough. Martin is getting ready for a video interview by his friend, Ross (Joshua Aaron McCabe in a nicely calibrated performance that carries a finely tuned edge of sarcasm and cynicism). The mood is light. Albee is in a slyly playful mood as Stevie and Martin in such quintessential Albee fashion, indulge in word play and banter that clearly demonstrates how and why these two are so naturally suited to each other. If there is a wrinkle at all in their romantic-intellectual idyll it is their 17-year-old gay son, Billy (played by Evan Silverstein in an overwrought emotional monotone).
It is during a Noel Coward-style bi-play that Martin playfully tells Stevie he's fallen in love with a goat. Context is everything so Stevie passes off the comment. Her rejoinder comes in kind, blithely remarking as she leaves when Ross enters, that she is going off to the feed store.
Later, however, alone with Ross after the interview is finished, more or less, in an act of trust and confidence, Martin tells Ross, who senses something is troubling Martin, that he has fallen in love with a goat named Sylvia.
"It never occurred to me that anything like this would come up," Adkins' Martin says to his increasingly incredulous and appalled friend. "'cause we've always been good together — good in bed; good out; always honest. I've not been unfaithful our whole marriage. I want you to know this; never physically untrue, as they say."
Its an assertion, an assurance Martin will make again, honestly and openly, in a shattering inevitable reckoning with Stevie, after she has found out about his clandestine, unfathomable relationship.
To say Stevie is wounded and hurt as she confronts Martin would be well beyond understatement. What follows through the second half of the play's second of three scenes is a reckoning unlike any George and Martha experience in Albee's masterpiece, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Gobsmacked by a betrayal that goes far beyond anything she possibly could have thought possible, Van Dyck's Stevie is a model of barely contained contempt. At times, it is all too much. She sits on the coach and, every now and then, howls with a deep, full-bodied, deeply guttural tone that comes from a place so deep within her, it is almost as if she's been consumed by a primal force. She will do it more than once; this raw scream that is at once threatening and anguished.
Martin will tell her, truthfully, that he's been the odd man out in his circle of men friends. all of whom are having affairs and boasting about their extramarital business; chiding, teasing Martin for not playing the game. "I only wanted you," Adkins' Martin tells Stevie with a touching sense of truth and awareness.
"In all our marriage I've never even wanted anyone but you," Van Dyck's Stevie says with a painful simplicity that pierces the heart.
"I rose into love with you ... ," she says a few moments later in an expression that catches her wonder, her comfort in what she and Martin had; her acutely painful sense of loss.
Adkins' Martin ducks and weaves in this verbal boxing match as he struggles to explain why, while asserting his love for Stevie, he has plunged into this relationship. But, faced with a turn in life she never possibly could have imagined, could have prepared for, Stevie is having none of it. Martin's facility with words and semantics fail him here as he tries to explain a commitment to a relationship that is beyond anything even he could have imagined. He pushes Stevie's love to the limit; beyond the limit. "You have brought me down, you goat ------, you love of my life. You have brought me down to nothing," she snarls at him, unleashing everything she has held in, amid a landscape in which, quite literally, almost everything has been smashed and overturned.
"You have brought me down and I'll bring you down with me," she growls with unrelenting force. " Heat turns to frost. This is not a threat, it is a promise.
Adkins and Van Dyck are consummate masters of their craft. That mastery is on full display on BTG's Unicorn Theatre stage. They are seamless, individually and together; by turns complementing and coming together. Van Dyck spares nothing. She leaves everything on the stage in a bold, courageous, exquisitely shaped performance. There is a kind of purity in Adkins' Martin; an ingenuousness mixed with a reckless, impetuous self-absorption that is dangerous in its refusal to gauge consequences, short-term and long; within his family and without. Not that any awareness of broader consequence would matter. Martin is white-watered into this relationship with Sylvia by currents he neither fully understands nor is able to maneuver skillfully. His inability to convey why this relationship matters only fuels the tragedies that play out in various guises and at various levels.
In this environment, love turns out to be an unreliable investment. Words matter. Actions also matter. And so, Albee seems to be asking, amid a host of questions, "What happens when our actions give the lie to our words? What then? Where do you go then?"