It’s easy to write off Albee’s classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff as a Richard-Burton-and-Elizabeth-Taylor-esque slingfest of drunken dysfunction (they did, after all, seal the play’s fame in their 1966 film version); its reputation pretty much precedes it. And, let’s face it, two unhappily married couples drinking themselves stupid, then bickering and whining at each other, doesn’t necessarily sound like a great night out—especially one that lasts for three hours and has two intermissions!—yet every minute of this play is absolutely riveting.

Arriving home less-than-sober at two o’clock in the morning from a Saturday night faculty party, Martha (Brenda Withers) announces to her husband George (Robert Kropf) that she’s invited two of the dinner guests over for more drinks. And when new biology professor Nick (Alex Pollock) and his wife Honey (Molly Kimmerling) turn up, Martha has all the spectators—and victims—she needs, all lined up and ready to go. Or maybe not: is it really George who needs to be center stage?

That question is at the center of the tug-of-war between George and Martha, and one ends up feeling that they’re pretty evenly matched. At some times the screaming feels like a bizarre sort of foreplay; at others it’s stunningly uncomfortable or gaspingly funny.

As George, Harbor Stage Company founding member Robert Knopf is nothing less than completely brilliant. He owns the role. He uses every inch of the modest stage, prowling, pacing, always moving but never restless: he is deliberate, positioning himself carefully for the next attack. Founding member Brenda Withers’ Martha is dazzling—which one has come to expect of her, but still!—as she keeps new emotions bubbling up and over with another waiting to rise, escalating at every turn.

The choice to make the living-room mid-century modern and understated (rather than fusty and cluttered, as other productions have) was inspired: its bare simplicity provided a suitable backdrop for the pathos and drunken drama played out. And when Martha changes her clothes at the start, instead of going for something “comfortable,” she is startling in her choice of a provocative red dress that Withers uses to advantage as she poses against walls, drinks cart, and furniture: she belongs in that room, and in an odd way it belongs to her.

Virginia Woolf Harbor Stage

Every review I’ve ever read of this play casts Honey as “mousy,” and that is indeed how the characters refer to her, but Molly Kimmerling’s Honey is anything but. She is as desperate as anyone else, quasi-hiding that desperation behind a series of bizarre behaviors. She married Nick when he thought she was pregnant, a pregnancy that subsequently went away; George assumes an abortion and even suggests at the end that Honey had had a series of them—at a time when abortion was illegal—to ensure that she’s the only child in the room. That’s not exactly mousy, though Nick is co-dependent to her needs, protecting her from crude language and sexual references and constantly overseeing her actions. Kimmerling is the perfect adult child, giggling and enthusiastic and very physical; even her retreats into the bathroom feel more like nap-time and less like the actions of a drinker needing to throw up. Kimmerling absolutely nails Honey.

Nick’s role is the least showy, and because of that it’s in some ways the most difficult: while his wife is bouncing around, fizzing with excitement, while George and Martha are going through their emotive fireworks, he gets to sit and react. And drink, of course (and his drunken perambulations about the stage are truly a treat to watch), but mostly just respond to what others are doing or saying. His bemused reaction to this new community he’s signed onto strikes just the right note. It’s hard for this character to not fade into the background and it’s a tribute to Pollock that his Nick manages to stand out.

None of these actors anticipates anything, no lines, no mood changes, allowing Albee’s carefully crafted emotional crescendos and climaxes to happen as he wrote them. And every one of the actors respects silence, allowing silence to work, a terrifically difficult thing to do but that makes all the scenes both edgier and more textured.

And the play’s iconic lines (which most actors completely lean on until they might as well be illuminated in neon), such as “blood under the bridge” and “left to her own vices”? These actors deliver them all of a piece with the rest of the dialogue. They don’t need to lean on them to shine.

This, I found myself thinking, is the work of a really sensitive and creative director. And I flipped to my program to find out who it was. No one. Consulted, Withers said, “We actually did a little experiment with this one and decided not to have a single director, but for the ensemble to piece it together in rehearsals.”

That’s an impressive testament to this ensemble’s technique and taste, and to the overall brilliance of their performances. If anyone can put the fun back in dysfunctional, and do it with style, it’s the Harbor Stage’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

July 12-August 4

Harbor Stage Company

15 Kendrick Avenue 

Wellfleet Harbor