Theater & dance

Bruising stage combat, with words as weapons, in ‘Virginia Woolf’

From left: Paula Plum, Erica Spyres, Dan Whelton, and Steven Barkhimer in rehearsal for Lyric Stage’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
From left: Paula Plum, Erica Spyres, Dan Whelton, and Steven Barkhimer in rehearsal for Lyric Stage’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

After his actors complete a run-through of one of the many emotionally charged scenes in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” director Scott Edmiston talks about some blocking ideas for the scene, in which one married couple provokes another through various levels of chagrin and humiliation.

“Oh, Martha,” Edmiston says to actress Paula Plum, calling her by her character’s name, “I want you to throw books at some point. Maybe that should be here. Their words are weapons right now.”

In separate interviews, both Edmiston and his actors call the play a prolonged boxing match. The director says the thrust configuration at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, where performances begin on Friday, will enhance the audience’s sense of sitting amid conflict.

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“When I saw it last I was at a safe distance from the danger,” Edmiston says, seated in the Lyric’s new rehearsal studio. “[This production] will make you feel like you’re trapped right in the room with those four people. I do think the play should feel dangerous.”

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“Virginia Woolf” is one of those well-known plays that isn’t necessarily produced so often. Many theatergoers know the material best from the 1966 Mike Nichols film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Though Psych Drama Company offered a conceptually staged iteration for small audiences in December, a 2009 production by the old Publick Theatre, starring Tina Packer and Nigel Gore, may be the most recent major production in Boston.

Albee, who died in September, was famously fussy about approving new productions — a tradition his estate carries on. The Lyric needed official approval of its director and cast as well as set and costume designs. No changes to the script are allowed. And the material presents its own challenges, as one couple — George and Martha, played here by Steven Barkhimer and Plum — stage an emotionally devastating evisceration of each other for the dubious benefit of their unfortunate guests, played by Erica Spyres and Dan Whelton.

The play’s 1962 premiere proved nothing short of scandalous. Many critics were dismayed by the characters’ voracious consumption of alcohol, frank discussion of sexuality, and language that seemed foul at the time — not to mention that, gasp, women were doing plenty of that drinking and cursing.

From the perspective of 2017 it’s easy to detect the pervasive current of sexism that inspired some of the response. “[W]hile I cringed and shuddered at the filthiest and fruitiest language I have yet heard onstage, the house was echoing with the shrieks and guffaws of the ‘ladies,’ ” John Chapman wrote in the New York Sunday News. The play, he added, is “merely sensational. Ladies, you may have it. Whoop, holler, squeal, yip and gasp deliciously to the content of your dear little hearts.” (Adding a bit of frost to his ice-cold take, Chapman also worried that Albee would be “a goner” as a result of the play.)

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Much of what seemed shocking in 1962 will prove less so to today’s audiences, Barkhimer acknowledges, but the intensity of the characters’ warring wordplay remains potent.

“There’s no casual moment onstage,” he says, seated with Plum in a dressing room after rehearsal. “What I don’t think has changed is the emotional shock of the cruelty. There’s not much point in trying to shock the audience in the same way, but you can’t avoid being socked in the gut by something.”

Plum says she once turned down an opportunity to play Martha against a George played by her husband, actor Richard Snee.

“It’s too vicious. I really couldn’t. Richard and I do a lot of plays together and they’re usually comedies. There’s something about that that makes for a happy marriage. This is one of those plays where I’d really like to leave it behind when I go home,” she says.

“This play is already starting to get to me psychologically,” she adds. “I hate to admit that, but I’m really having a hard time doing this play. The third act is brutal. We’re going to have to do it twice on Saturdays and I just can’t imagine.”

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Decades after the premiere of the play and of the film, George and Martha almost embody a certain type — the boozy, academic couple whose cutting wit aims for bone. A month after Albee’s death, “Saturday Night Live” aired an absurdist sketch in which four hamsters simulate a scene right out of “Virginia Woolf.” Not everyone in the television audience got the specific reference, but the characters’ dynamic felt familiar.

Edmiston sees Albee’s work in the tradition of great American dramatists like Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, he says, but with a key thematic twist.

“It’s almost like in O’Neill and Williams, the escape to illusion is the salvation of the human being — the world is too brutal so they need illusions just to endure,” Edmiston says. “Albee is saying almost the opposite: You have to tear down those illusions we have about ourselves, about our loved ones, about our country, before we can move forward.”

And a pair of boxing gloves wouldn’t hurt, either.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Jan. 13-Feb. 12. Tickets $33-$69, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com. Find him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.