When Ryan Hart directs a play, he wants reactions.
"I'd rather get someone angry," he says, "than have someone just not know what's going on."
Although the Air Force Academy doesn't typically aim to stir up controversy, this week's production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by the Bluebards Troupe in Arnold Hall will provide cadets and civilians alike the opportunity to inspect what Hart believes is "the idea that life has to be a certain way."
Written in 1962 by Edward Albee, the Tony Award-winning play criticizes traditional American marriage and hints that the life we're supposed to live probably won't happen. The story revolves around a professor, George, and his wife, Martha, who have invited a younger couple to their home for a nightcap. Slowly, by way of snide remarks, drunken "games" and episodes of sheer hysteria, George and Martha reveal secrets that shred the social and marital expectations that define them.
"It's a messed-up play," Hart says. "You see two people hurting each other, but they really love each other."
By the time the curtain falls, the audience has seen the fall of all four characters, and yet on the surface nothing has changed: They are still two married couples, still professionals, and it's just another day.
"We see that these people are OK," says Hart, "but what about us [the audience], who have not gotten rid of this [societal demand]?"
Hart is drawn to plays with compelling thematic issues; he directed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Academy last year. And even though the Bluebards Board (which tends to frown upon nudity and profanity) has to approve any play he does, Hart says he's enjoyed relative freedom in his eight years directing there. An alum himself, he believes it's important to nudge the cadets to question the structures of their lives.
"Just because you think this is what you're supposed to do," he says about life in the military, "does not necessarily mean that there won't be complications."
But the play is more constructive criticism than slash-and-burn.
"[Albee] doesn't tear down the structure as much as he says that you have to get at the important stuff," says Hart.
Unconventionally, Hart has cast Radhika Ranaweera, a Sri Lankan exchange cadet, as Nick, the brilliant and strapping young American ideal. It's a move he hopes will add a certain political correctness to the play's layers of perfection.
The play makes a decisive point, but it also does what Hart likes best: leaves us to make the next move.
"I wanted to do something meaty," says Hart. "I hope we get the really good audience reaction of, 'Ha ha ha ... oh God.'"