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Couples face off in ring matchup

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' is the theatrical equivalent of a boxing match that goes 50 rounds. Long, gruesome and perversely fascinating, it leaves the viewer feeling just as beat-up as the characters.

But the abuse is worth it, especially in the case of Portland Center Stage's current production of Edward Albee's 1962 classic. From the virtuoso acting to the excellent set, the production is a knockout from start to finish.

Set at a small New England college, the play opens as George and Martha ÑÊa longtime married couple ÑÊstumble home from a faculty party. Their conversation is smooth and affectionate, until Martha announces that she's invited a young couple over for some late-night cocktails.

The roller coaster takes off when Nick and Honey, a fresh-faced couple in their 20s, drop in.

This is the rare production that warrants its 3 1Ú2-hour running time. Director Nancy Keystone keeps the action moving at a steady clip. All the domestic disputes are loud and brutal, but they're punctuated by subdued moments that remind us that George and Martha are humans, not monsters.

The four cast members provide all the firepower that Albee's volatile play requires. Kevin Corstange and Nicole Marcks lend solid support as Nick and Honey, who hide some embarrassing secrets behind their Ken and Barbie facade. Margo Skinner hardly misses a beat as Martha, who's equal parts mean, pathetic and compassionate. Her performance is a bit monotonous at times, though. She lets out one too many low cackles when she taunts George, making one wonder if there are less obvious ways for Martha to express contempt for her husband.

Allen Nause, who plays George, is the real standout. With his hangdog expressions and his occasional ferocious glares, Nause brilliantly captures George's tortured ambivalence.

Douglas D. Smith's set looks lived in and professorial. Messy rows of books line the shelves at the back of the set. A couch and two armchairs are in the foreground, with a liquor bar nearby.

Who knew that such a cozy room could double as a battleground?