For 60 years, American playwright Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has burned acid holes into stages. A booze-fuelled domestic bloodsport starring Martha and George, Honey and Nick, it disembowels the delusions lurking in the sacred values and institutions that civil society holds dear. Baring its teeth at audiences first on Broadway in 1962 New York, an admixture of the absurd and the marrow-scrapingly real, it has inevitably lost some of its capacity to shock and offend.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? STCSA

Jimi Bani, Rashidi Edward and Susan Prior in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for State Theatre Company South Australia/ Sydney Festival. Photo © Yaya Stempler

George and Martha’s vituperative antics are believable in a marriage. Language like “humping the hostess” (which Albee had to fight to keep) tends to provoke dark laughter instead of gasps. The scene where the sweet-natured Honey keeps crying “violence! violence!” is terrible, but not singularly upsetting on the 21st-century stage. And the question that the play’s name encodes – can we move beyond fear to live without illusion? – is almost neurotically compulsive (if not always productive) to the generations inheriting this more self-critical, sacred cow-culling age.

Yet, for all the time that has passed, the script has retained its excoriating power. After revisiting it recently, the softest parts of my viscera were bruised.

Why, then, does this State Theatre Company South Australia/Sydney Festival revival under director Margaret Harvey so underwhelm?

It can’t be the set. Instantly arresting as soon as the first curtain of this three-acter rose, Ailsa Paterson has interpreted George and Martha’s home as an eerie and profoundly unwelcoming furniture-less space. Surrounded by an invisible moat, more like an ultra-modern gallery space than a domicile, its walls are of glass and its white floors made blinding by Nigel Levings’ harsh light. Holding the centre, watching the succession of symbolic woundings and deaths from inside a glass cabinet, is the ‘abstract painting’ mentioned in Albee’s first pages – here transmogrified into a sculpture of a horrible, horrible face, a golden mask with long black hair. The face appears to be melting.

Equally striking is the design of the stage walls behind: a lunatic’s chalkboard, with variations of the play’s title scrawled in a loose hand over and over again. On one side, an amateur drawing of a wolf, teeth bared.

So it can’t be the set. Or – at least in part – can it?

As soon as George and Martha walk in, and their two unsuspecting younger guests soon after, the chilled white space seem to zap them of heat. The hyperactive lines behind mean it’s difficult to isolate a figure in your field of vision – you can’t help but be distracted by the buzz. During the first act, which slumped rather than crackled along, all characters’ physical interactions, it seems, were kept deliberately distant, their independent movements minimal. For most of this first hour, their bodies were seated equidistantly along the back edges of that hard-edged home.

Arguably a result, the chemistry between all four actors fell flat. You were uncomfortably aware that these people are actors, saying their lines.

Fortunately – not least because this is a three-and-a-half hour play – things shifted for the better in the second act. Two walls of the house have disappeared, and for the first time, actors move outside the perimeter of the void-like house. This begins with the scene where George and Nick have their sparring man-to-man, heart-to-lying-heart – where we hear of the boy who killed both his parents, and of how Honey ‘blew up’ then went down. Harvey here has them seated in front of the main set, closer to the audience, and bathed in a coloured light (a trap, it turns out, to suggest intimacy and trust). For the first time, and with surprisingly swift effect, actors Jimi Bani (star of ABC’s Mabo) and Rashidi Edward connected to their characters, each other and the audience.

The pace picks up. Desire and danger bodily collide. Dialogue slices with a poisonous edge.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? STCSA

Juanita Navas-Nguyen in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for State Theatre Company South Australia/Sydney Festival. Photo © Yaya Stempler

Bani’s sickeningly jovial, pussy-whipped George – decades of embittered pain and tormented loyalty behind a huge smile – steps up to the role of perverse ringmaster. After barely registering in the first act, Nick is drawn into the older couples’ relentless games of truth and illusion, and Edward embodies him with mesmerising arrogance. And as the guileless Honey tumbles into utter inebriation, Juanita Navas-Nguyen depicts some of the most poignant moments (which Susan Prior’s Martha should have rightly stolen). The look on her utterly spent face as she lay crumpled at the outer edge, drawing on the wall a ship at sea, has made a blot mark in my memory.

As Martha, however, Prior was never more provocative than galling. Holding more sour milk in her belly than fire, I came to dread her vomitus laughs of ‘HAH, HAH, HAH’. When the final ritual sacrifice is performed by her husband, that devastating climax of questionable compassion, sympathy is tugged at but not ceded.

This State Theatre Company South Australia production has cast for racial diversity, with all performers except Prior non-white. None are made to pretend an American accent. Harvey is herself a First Nations woman of Saibai Island blood and English heritage: “I cannot ignore the lens through which I view this work,” she writes in her program note.

The show’s colour-conscious casting adds dimension to the play. Alongside tensions of class, sexuality, age and gender, character relations now also have an interracial valence. So it lands differently, when Martha calls Nick “house boy” and uses his muscular black body as a bait for her lighter-skinned husband. Or when you think how George, to the contempt of his wife, has had his professional and creative ambitions stalled by his powerful father-in-law, head of the university where George is associate professor. “I know history,” he says darkly when Nick, a biologist and rising university powerhouse, speaks optimistically of the brave new future of genetic splicing, the ‘made-to-order’ human in reach.

Albee’s play is still under copyright, and it will be a while yet before a radical revision can be performed. Yet Harvey’s iteration seemed to yearn for this freedom, vying but not quite succeeding to update on powerful themes and speak their relevance to an Australian audience.

“George and Martha, sad, sad, sad.”

I was sad too that a show which gave such compelling evidence of fine actors unmoved me for so long.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until 23 January as part of Sydney Festival and at the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre for State Theatre Company South Australia, 27 January – 6 February.