4 out of 5 Stars

The Guild pulled no punches with its first production of the season, dragging Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? out for display. And, judging from opening night, it’s a great fight.

The action takes place in George and Martha’s living room between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., after they’ve come home from a faculty party. They’re drunk, and George is exhausted, but unbeknownst to him, Martha has invited guests from the party — a new biology professor and his mousy wife — to their house, for her own amusement.

It’s what cats do to mice.

The evening is a series of wicked little games whereby the guests get to watch George and Martha publicly humiliate one another and themselves, all in a battle of one-upmanship.

But the guests are not immune from attacks, either. And the whole thing makes you laugh because you can’t believe the characters take the swings they do.

Eric Epstein plays George as a tired professor who caters outwardly to his wife while he zings her verbally. He conveys George’s thoughts with his eyes. This is a masterful choice.

Epstein plays George with subtlety, cruel and wounded, and he builds to some very controlled, striking actions. His discussions with Nick (Mike Ellis) frighten you, as if he’s the gladiator sparring with a new, lesser challenger.

I’ve never seen Epstein better.

Jones channels Eartha Kitt, playing Medea – sultry, vicious, always ready to swing. I loved her malleable face and the nuance she brings to her lines. She can turn on a dime, from broken to manic; her Gatling Gun is chilling and hilarious. She’s willing to take on any man.

The sad part is that you feel she doesn’t want to destroy them, but she does it because they aren’t able to fight up to her calibre. Except for George.

Ah, love … when knife-throwing is the required skill set.

Mike Ellis and Justine Davidson play Nick and Honey, the naïve couple who are drawn into this acidic parlour game. Both of them come into their own more, in Act II, as they loosen up.

Davidson plays the comic relief well, and to her credit, she makes the cruel games focused on Honey, in Act II, genuinely move the audience. Unfortunately, Davidson looks unnatural in the only costume that shouts “the 60s”: pink gloves, empire-waist frock and high bouffant hair — I don’t care if it’s period perfect, it’s unnatural on her, and jars the visual scene. Photos of Davidson, in the adjoining room, have her in a sleeveless Jackie Kennedy dress, which would have been less distracting.

While Ellis might be stiff at first, as Nick, not knowing what to do with his arms, he shines and relaxes in his scenes alone with Epstein. Their couch discussion is a fantastic scene. He couldn’t have been acting.

He plays Nick as a serious, career-minded young professor who just doesn’t know better than to get caught in George and Martha’s game. He warms up nicely throughout the play and his scenes with Jones are fun, though he doesn’t quite look like a humiliated man at the beginning of Act III, more like a man who has lost a bet.

The sets of the Guild always amaze me, but I actually stooped down to look closely at the grates in the floor of George and Martha’s living room.

The illusion is well done. I love that we are literally inside their house with them, unable to escape. Like Nick and Honey, we are forced to watch.

On opening night, the lights kept intensifying or diminishing in mid-scene and it was a bit distracting. The clock on the wall kept perfect time, and the chimes, my God, had the perfect timing of any actor.

My only disappointment, in a play that’s a major triumph for this ensemble cast, comes in Act III.

In the final scene, I got the feeling we’d been there before. It almost seemed like George’s revelation had the same blocking as his “novel” scene from Act II, and that both George and Martha seemed to go to the same emotional places they’d been before. It dragged, leaking out any tension in long, overdrawn moments that seemed determined to give the ending weight it already had.

Epstein, especially, seems to close the blinds so we can’t see George’s emotional motivation there. I’d seen his pain flawlessly flayed on that stage for two and a half acts, but I couldn’t see it in that scene.

Because Epstein and Jones are as vivid as lightning and thunder in this play, we want to see that same intensity even in the quieter, moving moments — not slowed down and muted.

In the whole play, I have ridden along with the roller coaster of George and Martha’s rage, but only in this last moment did I feel a bit left out of the ride.

However, that doesn’t diminish the intense, wonderful impressions of this production. And my respect for this cast is enormous.

Sarah Rodgers has done exactly what she set out to do: to make this an ensemble play, to combine laughter and horror, to bring out Albee’s words. Albee’s writing is witty and precise, and the one-liners deserve a second serving just for the wordplay alone. Tonight, I heard an audience who, at times, couldn’t stop laughing.

I still can’t believe how much this cast unleashes onstage.

It’s riveting, terrifying, but comedic ice cream at the same time.

You don’t want to miss it.