Lyric Stage’s ‘Virginia Woolf’: A battle for the ages

Dan Whelton, Paula Plum and Steven Barkimer in "Who's Afraid of Virginia  Woolf?" Photo: Mark S. Howard

Dan Whelton, Paula Plum and Steven Barkhimer in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Photo: Mark S. Howard

BOSTON – Playwright Edward Albee was not all about making theater-goers feel comfortable.

In his classic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, now being presented by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, there is enough discomfort to go around and as the discomfort level mounts on stage, it spills over to the audience.

In “Virginia Woolf,” husband and wife eviscerate each other onstage in the presence of their guests, who are at times aghast, horrified and humiliated.

Of course any gathering that starts at 2 a.m. and is fueled by massive quantities of alcohol is bound to reveal some close-held secrets – in vino veritas,  the Romans would say.

Steven Barkhimer as George and Paula Plum as Martha would be on anyone’s shortlist of the finest and most consistent actors in Greater Boston. Barkhimer is also a talented playwright and musician, while Plum has proven her skills as a director in shows such as “Out of Sterno” and “The School for Scandal.”

Plum said in an interview that she declined a chance to do “Woolf” with her actor husband Richard Snee because the play was too “vicious.”

A wise decision. Early on, George shows the stuffiness and reserve of a college professor while Martha is flirtatious and coquettish, but the thin veneer of civility that exists between the couple at the beginning of the play is slowly stripped away and dissipates amid the insults and baiting.

This is a play where verbal fisticuffs turn into the real thing

George’s teaching career as a history professor at the small New England college long ruled by Martha’s father hit a dead end many years before the play opens as the couple arrives home at 2 a.m. after a faculty party at the home of Martha’s father.

Martha, given her father’s position, is to the manor born and casts a long shadow on campus, something she long has been very well aware of – and has reminded George of constantly during the couple’s 23 years of marriage.

So while the couple warm up for their guests’ arrival with some vigorous sniping, it isn’t until after their guests arrive and the liquor really starts flowing that the tension ratchets up.

Dan Whelton is Nick – a handsome young up-and-coming professor at the college in whom George clearly sees what he could have been and should have been before it all went wrong. Whelton holds his own as George and Martha draw him into their battle and threaten to make collateral damage of both he and Erica Spyres as his wife Honey. She is a meek, subservient type who can’t hold her liquor and eventually gets wrapped up in George and Martha’s sadistic, dangerous games.

Early on it appears that George, emasculated by Martha’s father, will bow to her tyrannies. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Barkimer’s George will erupt with furies generated by a thousand slights real or imagined. At several points during the long morning’s journey to day things will spiral out of control, and life, limb and marriages will all be at risk.

“We need to play a game,” seethes George at one point. “Hump the hostess,” is for later, he explains, speaking the truth.

The barbs in the first act are merely jabs. They will become poison-tipped in Act II, before all-out nuclear warfare erupts and all the punches are below the belt in the third act.

Director Scott Edmiston has the cast at such a fever pitch that I find it remarkable that in a recent week, the cast did seven performances of the work, which is nearly three hours long with two intermissions.

You might find you feel like you need a shower after watching George and Martha batter each other into a final exhausted submission, but it is a journey well worth taking, two nonpareil performers working under an accomplished director, getting down and dirty in a battle for the ages.

The Lyric Stage Company of Boston production of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Directed by Scott Edmiston. Scenic design by Janie E. Howland. Costume design by Charles Schoonmaker. Lighting design by Karen Perlow. Composition/sound design by Dewey Dellay. Through Feb. 12. lyricstage.com.

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