“Everybody’s going to play poker at Kathleen’s house tonight. But I think I’m going to have to beg off,” Bill Irwin is saying. “I have to treat myself like a hothouse plant.” The co-star (with Kathleen Turner) in the revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, newly opened at the Longacre, is not ordinarily such a delicate creature, but Irwin—known for his clowning in The Regard of Flight and the wordless Fool Moon—is facing new challenges with this production. For one thing, he has to talk. A lot. “I’m as exhausted—even more so, sometimes—than I ever was with Fool Moon,” says Irwin. “But in different ways: I used to have to take care of my joints and do a certain warm-up. The vocal challenge of this play is as athletic, in its way, as anything I’ve ever done.”
Of course, Irwin has always been a serious actor, trained at Oberlin as well as at Clown College. That may be why Edward Albee—who’s stalled this revival for half a decade, searching for the right actors—approved his casting, even though buttoned-up George is anything but clownish. (Director Anthony Page says of Irwin that “one of the main things I had to do was to stop him from gesturing too much.”) About the notion that he’s making a major life change, however, Irwin is sanguine: “Clowns have to make a transition, and it’s a hard transition to make. And you can’t be the young go-getter anymore. One of the big jobs of middle age is to accept and embrace it, no matter what we do.” George and Martha couldn’t have said it better.