PlayMakers Repertory Company subverts the dominant holiday-show paradigm this year by presenting Edward Albee’s excoriating 1962 drama that has little in it to make one feel good. Except, of course, superior insight into human behavior, and especially that of academic types driven to meanness and cruelty by ambition and frustration. As painful as it is, the play does offer insight in abundance, as well as blisteringly accurate language — and the opportunity for acute directors and talented actors to blow our minds.

Guest director Wendy C. Goldberg leads two of PRC’s finest actors, and two of the Professional Theatre Training Program’s current MFA students, in this devastating tale of one drunken night at George and Martha’s, the night decades of illusion-sharing and miserable sniping culminate in an all-out battle. The protagonists are deeply wounded; the prisoners are killed; the wreckage is complete. Yet… Albee leaves a tiny space for hope and kindness at the end of this domestic tragedy, and to her very great credit, director Goldberg preserves it. The final scene has a bleak tenderness that her careful control of the live ammunition firefight renders believable.

If by chance or youth you have never had the opportunity to see this play, take this one. If you’ve seen another version, see it anyway. Ray Dooley and Julie Fishell are magnificent. Not only are they both amazing actors, they have the benefit — for this play — of having known and worked together for quite a while, so the deep familiarity with each other that they exude has foundation in fact. Even as George and Martha war, we can see that they are really comfortable with each other. They wound and are wounded; they despise and demean, but they are married, which eliminates certain kinds of anxieties. It is particularly interesting to watch Dooley and Fishell in this play after seeing them — primarily Fishell — in Beckett’s Happy Days last year. Both actors reprise a number of crafty techniques of mannerism and timing for Who’s Afraid, which has more in common with the Beckett than I’d previously realized.

Not being buried up to her neck in a mound of dirt here, Fishell moves relentlessly around the stage as Martha, flaunting, flirting, furiously tirading. Dooley is far more economical with his movement, and as George holds his forces until he’s got Martha cornered in close quarters. The timing between the two, from the building of the tension to the final dénouement is the key to the play’s power. Fishell and Dooley, enjoying the full development of their own powers, maximize Albee’s.

If this production is a shade less intense than it might be, that may be chalked up to the lack of experience of the younger actors. Katie Paxton as Honey is quite good — believably sloshed and mercurial — but Brett Bolton as Nick, Honey’s husband and a young man with an eye for the easy path to progress, had not quite found his assurance on opening night.

The drunken hours of the three-act show play out entirely in George and Martha’s professorial living room, and special mention must be made of Alexander Dodge’s set. Both floor and ceiling are a hot red; the back wall comprises shelves (notice the crooked uprights) of books (6000), with a spiral stair and a balcony. A leather chesterfield, reading chairs and tables, lamps and paintings stand among the faded oriental rugs, piles of books and scattered papers. All is anchored by the drinks cart, to which all paths lead. Subtly modeled by Josh Epstein’s lighting design, the set is both realistic and expressionistic. Jade Bettin’s well-thought-out costuming places the action firmly in the early 1960s. But the play evades the specifics of its historical moment and asserts the currency of its truths. Nothing dated here. We are all afraid to strip away our illusions. So give yourself a holiday gift: let Albee and PlayMakers do it for you.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continues at PRC through Dec. 18. See the sidebar for details.