It was with some trepidation that I picked up my ticket to "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

I had that same queasy feeling one gets when accepting an invitation to a party thrown by that couple who always drink too much, act inappropriately, start fighting and embarrass their guests.

After all, that's the set-up of Edward Albee's drama — so paradoxically the better the production the more uneasy the audience can feel.

Unfortunately — and at the same time so very fortunately — for me, Mad Cow Theatre's devilishly intimate production virtually crackles with raw emotion.

It's like watching unpleasant people's psyches stripped bare right in your living room.

Well, in this case the living room of George and Martha (Stephan Jones and Peg O'Keef), a professor at a small-town college and his wife, the daughter of the college president. They invite Nick (Timothy Williams), a newcomer to the faculty over for late-night drinks after a college mixer. He and his mousey wife, Honey (Heather Leonardi), have no idea what they're in for.

For George and Martha specialize in a specific sort of psychological warfare, with each other — or anyone who gets in the way.

Director J. Barry Lewis lets things start off on a fairly light note. Jones looks weary as O'Keef prattles on about an old Bette Davis movie (nice touch by scenic designer Tom Mangieri to have a book about movie studio MGM prominently in view).

But when O'Keef drops her voice into a hoarse tenor, look out. "I think that's the thing I like most about you — your anger," she goads George.

O'Keef is a sexually charged Martha, whose flirtation with young Nick carries an extra spark of danger. As she constantly reminds George he never measured up to her or her father's expectations, she drawls "Da-a-a-ddy" with a combination of reverence and awe.

Jones' eyes tell his story — despite shuffling about, clad in an awful red sweater, look at his face to see the wheels in motion under the surface as he plots his next move, instigates the next game.

Both O'Keef and Jones have the trick of raising the anger stakes until you suddenly realize, by a sideways glance or quaver in voice or fumble with an empty glass, that it's a cocktail of regret, loss and fear masquerading as anger.

Williams has a gruff edge to ambitious Nick that seems as put on as the guises worn by George and Martha. When George gets the better of Nick, Williams seems to shrink, becoming more youthful before our eyes.

Leonardi plants Honey comically one step behind as the booze and mind games start flowing. But later, even among her drunken comic-relief moments, Leonardi finds a toughness in Honey that piques the interest in her back story and character. Is she as damaged as the others? Leonardi suggests she is.

It's a heady mix. While I wouldn't want to routinely socialize with any of these four characters, this was a party I was glad I didn't miss.

Matthew J. Palm can be reached at mpalm@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5038.



See for yourself



What: Mad Cow Theatre production of the Edward Albee drama 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, as well as two Mondays, Feb. 7 and 21; 2:30 p.m. Sundays; through Feb. 27.

Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 105 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando

Tickets: $27 adults; $25 seniors and students; $15 Monday shows (with limited free ArtsFest tickets for Feb. 4-5 and 10-11 shows available at artsfestFL.com beginning Tuesday)

Call: 407-297-8788

Online: madcowtheatre.com