Dan Pegoda and Lyn Burg as George and Martha

Dan Pegoda and Lyn Burg as George and Martha

Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf failed to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama when it premiered in 1962 for the simple reason that it had too many crude words and too much sexual material.

Today the play, which is running at Oregon Contemporary Theatre through March 14, seems tame in that regard. But it remains a blockbuster of a drama, an American classic that is as fresh today as it was half a century ago, at a time when men, with no sense of irony, wore narrow neckties and drank bourbon, women seldom held jobs outside the home, and everybody smoked a lot.

Having missed the opening last weekend while I was in Las Vegas, I caught the play Thursday night.

Albee’s script offers a sharp, sardonic, and tightly drawn portrait of the poisonous but apparently everlasting marriage between George, a brilliant but slightly stuffy middle-age professor of history, and Martha, his ball busting and sexually aggressive wife. When the lights come up, it’s after midnight — well after midnight — and George and Martha have just arrived home from a faculty party. Martha announces, to George’s consternation, that she invited a younger faculty couple — Nick and Honey — to join them for a nightcap.

Nick and Honey arrive, and for the next three and a quarter hours — this is a marathon play, by today’s standards, done in three full acts with two intermissions — George and Martha and Nick and Honey drink and flirt and circle one another, fencing verbally and sometimes physically as the night and the liquor wear on.

On one level this is a critique of the perfect American family of the 1950s. On another, it’s a larger reflection on human desire, attachment and suffering. And yes, it all could be a little depressing and trite. A lot of 1960s drama of this genre hasn’t survived the test of entering a new millennium.

But between Albee’s amazing script, which really should have taken that Pulitzer Prize, and top-of-the-line acting by Dan Pegoda, as George; Lyn Burg, as Martha; Cloud Pemble, as Nick; and Erika Towe, as Honey, I found myself absolutely mesmerized by the show, without a moment of inattention.

Pegoda, especially, is right on the mark as George, his shambling weakness held together by an inner strength that becomes most apparent in the play’s final scene.

Craig Willis, artistic director of OCT, directs the show with an economy to match Albee’s tight script. No motion is wasted, no expression is lost. Steen Mitchell’s realistic set captures the look of the early 1960s, from National Geographic magazines to the ever present bar and the modern maple woodwork.

It’s a considerable challenge for a small theater like OCT to take on a big show like this, especially one that is so familiar from an overpowering movie version, made in 1966, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

But Willis and his cast are right on the money. They give us an amazing, gripping and moving performance, and certainly one to go see.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Oregon Contemporary Theatre

Through March 14