by Clark Groome

I must be one of about seven theater critics or theater lovers who had never seen Edward Albee’s searing masterpiece, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” I never saw Liz and Dick duke it out in the movie or any of the highly acclaimed productions that have graced Broadway over the half-century since it premiered with Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill in the principal roles.

While I may be late coming to this iconic Albee drama at least I was lucky enough to get my initiation with the stunning production being mounted by Theatre Exile through May 17 at Plays and Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Place in center city.

George (the extraordinary Pearce Bunting) and Martha (the superbly nuanced Catharine Slusar), he a history professor at a small New England college and she both his wife and the college president’s daughter, arrive home at 2 a.m. from a faculty party. Their life together is clearly complicated, pairing strong components of commitment and hatred, both of which are fueled by copious amounts of booze.

Immediately upon arriving home, the sparring begins. Just as things start to warm up, Nick, a new faculty member (the handsome and subtle Jake Blouch), arrives with his somewhat mousy wife Honey (the appropriately understated Emilie Krause) for the nightcap for which Martha had invited them.

One nightcap leads to many, many more, and the sparring between George and Martha never stops, gradually revealing some frightening inner secrets while at the same time drawing Nick and Honey into their game.

It’s often hysterically funny and at others devastatingly painful. There were times when I wished those fascinating people would just shut up and leave me in peace.

But that’s not to be.

Joe Canuso is the show’s expert director. Meghan Jones designed the cluttered professor’s living room. Thom Weaver designed the moody lighting, and Katherine Fritz’ costumes were spot-on. Mark Valenzuela’s sound design included pre-show and intermission music just right for the early 1960s in which it was set.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is strong stuff. What makes it so extraordinary is that it never once during the full three hours it took for the games to be played lost its momentum as it moved inevitably to its shattering and powerful conclusion.

For tickets call 215-218-4022 or visit www.theatreexile.org