WESTBROOK — Mike Levine has tried to draw attention to the plays that he presents at the 40-seat theater at Acorn Productions in the Dana Warp Mill.

He’s had some success, but hopes to blow the doors open with a production of one of the most influential and controversial plays in the history of American theater. Levine, Acorn’s artistic director, opens Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” on Friday.

The play, which opened in New York in 1962, won the Tony Award for best play in 1963. It also was chosen for the Pulitzer Prize, but the award’s governing body objected to the play’s theme and content, and awarded no Pulitzer for drama that year.

“We’ve done a lot of work on our space out here in Westbrook, and we want to show it off,” said Levine, who directs the play. “We want to bring attention to the fact that we’re doing legitimate theater here. What better way to do that than a play like this?”

At the time of its introduction, Albee’s play felt scathing. It shocked audiences with its language and sexual references.

By today’s standards, it’s fairly tame, and one could argue that “God of Carnage,” on stage at Portland Stage this month, carves with sharper knives, as does, perhaps, Good Theater’s current production of “August: Osage County.”

And let’s not forget last year’s Mad Horse production of Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” with its themes of bestiality, incest and homosexuality.

But in the early 1960s, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” was considered brilliant, racy and daring. Indeed, in the context of modern American theater, it stands as a precedent for those other plays, and may serve as the standard against which other intense family-relationship dramas are measured.

“Virginia Woolf” lifted the veil on American family life, exposing secrets that were kept hidden and debunking the mythology of the perfect family.

The New York Times described the play as “possessed by raging demons. It is punctuated by comedy, and its laughter is shot through with savage irony. At its core is a bitter, keening lament over man’s incapacity to arrange his environment or private life as to inhibit his self-destructive compulsions.”

It centers on George and Martha. He is a college professor, and she is the college president’s daughter. They invite a new professor, Nick, and his wife, Honey, over for dinner.

The four are toxic.

Martha and George take to the drink, and proceed to savage one another verbally and physically.

Nick and Honey barely handle themselves any better. She loves her brandy, and he watches the scene unfold with perverse amusement and curiosity.

Here is how New York Times theater critic Howard Taubman described the “liquor-sodden” night: “Sympathize with them or not, you will find the characters in this new play vibrant with dramatic urgency. In their anger and terror they are pitiful as well as corrosive, but they are also wildly and humanly hilarious. Mr. Albee’s dialogue is dipped in acid, yet ripples with a relish of the ludicrous. His controlled, allusive style grows in mastery.”

With one intermission, Acorn’s show will last about three hours. It is a full night of theater, with minimal props and a sparse stage. With only brief exceptions, all the characters are on stage the whole time.

For those reasons, Levine thinks this play is nearly perfect to demonstrate the emotional capacity of Acorn’s performance space. The Acorn theater is small and intimate. Audience members are so close to the action, they may feel as though they have an invitation to the party, for better or worse.

The Acorn production stars Paul Haley as George, Kerry Rasor as Martha, April Singley as Honey and Nicholas Schroeder at Nick. All have deep experience in the Portland theater community, appearing in productions by the American Irish Repertory Ensemble, Good Theater, Mad Horse and other companies.

Rasor jumped at the chance to play Martha. “It’s one of the iconic roles in theater,” she said.

The challenge of being on stage for three hours, with only a brief pause for intermission and a script as intense as this — let alone minimal props — make these marathon roles. “It’s daunting, but exciting,” she said. “The breadth of emotion from start to finish is huge.”

Schroeder’s challenge is giving life to a character he finds repulsive.

“For me, I like the opportunity to do a dark show that’s realistically dark,” he said. “If we do our jobs well, the audience will feel like they are in the living room with us.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: [email protected]sherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes