“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” George chants low in the darkness. “I am, George. I am,” intones a hollow-eyed Martha in the Lyric Stage’s merciless yet moving production of Albee’s classic. As the light slowly fades on this bitter couple in the final scene, I felt a chill. The moment is forever seared in my mind, a moment of sheer existential terror and loneliness in a production not to be missed.

Edward Albee’s three hour saga was a fearsome thing when it debuted in 1962. So controversial was its plot, language, and emotional brutality that it was denied the Pulitzer, and the movie version wreaked havoc on its

Liz Taylor & Richard Burton “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966 film)

stars: Sandy Dennis suffered a miscarriage during filming, and it may have contributed to the break up of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s marriage. More than a half century later and 3 months after the death of its playwright, the cold-war overtones of George and Martha battling it out in “New Carthage” remain as relevant as ever in this “post truth” era of divisiveness and fake news, where illusion and truth have as slippery and combative a relationship as ever.

Here Steven Barkhimer as history professor George and Paula Plum as his alcoholic wife Martha –daughter of the university president– give it their ruthless best. Plum bursts through the door a coiffed and voluptuous hen, pecking nonstop at her relentlessly heckled husband. It’s 2 o-clock in the morning, George and Martha are already plowed and cranking it up, AND they’re  expecting guests!! Soon, a young couple (another George and Martha in the making) arrive: Nick (a stilted Dan Whelton) a new science teacher at the university who married his “delicate” wife Honey (a perfectly pale and pert Erica Spyres) under false pretenses. She can’t hold her liquor or much of anything else down. George and Martha will eat them for breakfast. 

But before the sun comes up, the night will devolve, scene by scene, from “Fun and Games,” to a bacchanalian “Walpurgisnacht,” culminating in “The Exorcism.” Albee’s aptly-named alcohol-fueled cyclone of abuse and pain will screw itself up and suck them all in on Janie E. Howland’s worn-out living room of a set; only George and Martha will remain standing. Plum goes at it full throttle, by turns bawdy, cruel, acid-tongued, and hyper-sexualized, chewing men up and spitting them out, further humiliating George.  He retaliates by alternately baiting her and keeping her at bay; he reserves the cruelest blow for the climactic third act which will eviscerate the illusions on which they’ve hung their spikey union. They are also dangerously, corrosively funny and we understand that these battles are their substitute for real intimacy, which they won’t get anywhere near until the play’s final fearsome showdown.

Plum and Barkhimer are magnificent together. Repellant as their drinking and bickering is, we are always aware of the psychic wounds beneath these characters’ surface hostility; they pull us in and hold us there.

“Martha: … I cry allllll the time; but deep inside, so no one can see me. I cry all the time. And Georgie cries all the time, too. We both cry all the time, and then what we do, we cry, and we take our tears, and we put ’em in the ice box, in the goddamn ice trays until they’re all frozen and then… we put them… in our… drinks.”

Scott Edmiston directs this wicked roller coaster of a night with extraordinary control over every perilous twist and turn. George and Martha’s interchanges never go so far off the rails that we and they can’t turn back. In its transcendent final moments this production devastates, the staging and lighting stunning here. There’s a tinge of warmth in the light that slowly wanes on this couple; in these moments we fear for them as they stand in the teeth of the wolf, ALMOST facing each other, fully exposed for the first time. DO NOT MISS “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at the Lyric Stage Company through February 12.