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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

This lacerating masterpiece by Edward Albee blasted onto the scene in 1962, solidifying the distinctive voice of a great American playwright who pulls no punches in his sardonic views on the flip side of the American dream. Wide-ranging interpretations of the play were expressed: George and Martha Washington and the decline of Western civilization, the crucifixion of Christ, a veiled portrait of gay relationships. Yet any imagined subtext pales beside this classic's core dramatic truth. It's a shattering portrait of marital warfare that borders on the sadomasochistic, a chilling primal response to moral and social malaise.

Director Todd Salovey's vital and mesmerizing revival, originally seen at San Diego Rep in fall 2001, reverberates with razor-sharp wit and an overpowering sense of sadness. The play's uncompromising and revelatory glimpse at drowning souls gasping for spiritual survival startles us anew in this gripping interpretation. Unlike the revered 1966 Mike Nichols film version that is so strongly etched in our minds, Salovey opts for a subtler, less melodramatic approach, which proves a compelling choice. Though from the outset the primary characters of henpecked college professor George (Mike Genovese) and his shrewish wife, Martha (Ellen Crawford), are intoxicated and clearly mired in a dysfunctional marriage, their bond of love is palpably established in the early scenes. Salovey initially subdues the dramatic fireworks, which pays off with a tenser and more pronounced descent toward the hellish climax, punctuated by cruelty and revelation. The cathartic denouement is an emotional wipeout.

A four-star ensemble cast unearths every ounce of Albee's nerve-racking humor and sharp poignancy. In a splendidly layered performance, Crawford makes Martha a pseudo-sophisticate raconteur who uses alcohol and devil-may-care repartee to mask her repressed despair. Deadly sparks emanate and escalate during her interactions with Genovese (her real-life spouse), who counteracts Martha's bitchiness and manipulative tactics with a more calculated approach, striking back like a cobra when least expected. These actors brilliantly convey the heartbreak and desperation of this love/hate relationship. Lending exemplary support are Peter Friedrich as the up-and-coming young biology professor, Nick, and Ginger Williams as his neurotic, simpering wife, Honey. Friedrich's segue from cheerful young stud to snake in the grass is sublime, mirroring the distorted sense of values that have destroyed the elder couple's marriage. Williams does a superb job of capturing both the humor and underlying pathos of her head-in-the-sand character.

The austere physical design is a triumph of mood. Giulio Cesare Perrone's antiseptic ivory-and-white living-room set underlines Albee's themes of literal and metaphorical sterility. Jerry M. Sonnenberg's lighting is likewise superb. No one should be afraid of first-rate theatre; this hard-hitting production isn't easy to watch, yet it's infinitely rewarding.

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