To George and Martha, every gesture, no matter how small, is a skirmish in a never-ending power struggle. Who’ll fetch the next round of drinks? Who’ll light Martha’s cigarette? Which of them will answer the door of their faded home on the campus of a New England college? Who will bestow a kiss, or withhold one?
But it is their words — their weaponized, oh-so-lethal words — that inflict the real damage in Scott Edmiston’s crackling production of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’’ at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, starring Paula Plum as Martha and Steven Barkhimer as George.
Cultural complacency never had a fiercer foe than Albee, who died in September at 88 after challenging theater audiences for more than half a century. There was often a political dimension as well to his examinations of his characters, their quandaries, and, by extension, the nation’s soul. “I always write about politics — sometimes it’s rather disguised,’’ Albee told the Huffington Post a few years ago.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’’ should be suffused with dread, up to and including the sing-song incantation of the title that closes the play, and Edmiston makes sure that it is. Certain scenes are steeped in shadow, and for all the production’s claustrophobic focus on one living room on one long and boozy night, there’s a prevailing sense that social institutions are crumbling, ideals are vanishing, and the world may be on the verge of coming apart at the seams. That feels grimly appropriate this week.
In recent years, it’s not been hard to discern Albee’s influence on TV dramas, for good and ill. Many a scriptwriter in this so-called Golden Age of Television has strained for the guided-missile precision of lines like this withering put-down of George by Martha: “I swear, if you existed, I’d divorce you.’’ Albee was not the first playwright to venture into taboo-toppling subject matter, and he didn’t invent scorched-earth domestic combat, either, but few if any have ever done it as well.
Part of what makes “Virginia Woolf’’ so fascinating is that Albee peels back the layers to reveal the strange camaraderie, mutual need and us-against-the-world solidarity that underpins the war of nerves between George and Martha. In a perverse but very real way, these two are made for each other.
This, of course, does not stop them from trying to destroy each other before the frequently aghast gaze of a young married couple whose own secrets will spill out before the night is through: Nick, an amoral and opportunistic new faculty member (a superb Dan Whelton), and his forlornly lost and confused wife, Honey (Erica Spyres, excellent).
Obviously, today’s audiences are far more shock-proof than they were when “Virginia Woolf” first jolted New York theatergoers in 1962, or when Boston’s city censor forced producers to delete “the irreverent use of the Lord’s name’’ from performances of “Virginia Woolf’’ at the Colonial Theatre in 1963. Yet Edmiston’s production at Lyric Stage underscores the extent to which Albee’s play still has the power to unsettle. The air is often charged with the expectation that something ugly is about to happen (or the actuality of something ugly happening). Though it clocks in at nearly three hours (with two intermissions), Lyric Stage’s “Virginia Woolf’’ seldom drags.
The aforementioned lighting shifts (the design is by Karen Perlow) endow some scenes with the set-apart atmosphere of private, sorrowful soliloquies. A decided weariness pervades the living room, designed by Janie E. Howland, of the home where George and Martha live. Between the books leaning sideways on a bookcase upstage and assorted pieces of furniture that have seen better days, the entire dwelling seems to sag. Several bottles of partly depleted liquor stand nearby; they’ll be a lot more depleted before dawn arrives.
Martha quotes Bette Davis in the play’s opening scene, and there is a Davis-like quality to Plum’s scornful laugh and the way her Martha holds a cigarette, languidly reclines on the couple’s faded couch, or stands poised for combat with a hand on her hip. (George is a lowly associate professor of history at the college where Martha’s father is president, and she never lets him forget either fact). An actress of consummate skill, Plum captures the self-dramatizing theatricality that Martha deploys as a kind of armor against the many disappointments of her life. She gives Martha’s voice a harsh, metallic edge that makes it all the more powerful in the character’s later, vulnerable moments, when that voice trembles or breaks.
I associate Barkhimer more with vivid supporting performances than with a leading role like George, but his portrayal is a subtly masterful one. Attired in a bow tie and tan sweater, his hair as lank and listless as his character outwardly seems to be, Barkhimer gives us a deceptively soft George who utilizes the conversational equivalent of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy: He allows Martha to punch herself into exhaustion. Unlike the simmering volcano of Tracy Letts’s portrayal in the 2012 Broadway revival of “Virginia Woolf,’’ Barkhimer’s George is a creature of guile and cunning, a whatever-it-takes-survivor of marital blood sport. He is keeping his powder dry, enduring one humiliation after another, but once his wife brings up the topic of “our son,’’ George has one big card to play in his corrosive, high-stakes game with Martha. And when he finally plays it, the effect is devastating.
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
Play by Edward Albee
Directed by Scott Edmiston
Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Through Feb. 12. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com