Bad dreams come in all shapes and sizes, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

According to psychologists, nightmares contain hidden yet painful truths about which the dreamer would prefer to remain consciously ignorant. In a nutshell, bringing these disturbing psychological bruises into the light of conscious awareness can result in a happier, healthier, and more emotionally balanced individual.

To say that watching McCarter Theater’s production of Edward Albee’s "All Over" is a lot like sitting through a nightmare in no way denigrates the play or the production. On the contrary, the fact that it is so disturbing and resonates in the consciousness long after one exits the theater testifies to its force and poetic truth. Directed by Emily Mann, "All Over" will be presented through March 3.

When it was initially produced in the early 1970’s "All Over" received chilly reviews in both New York and London. Critics openly questioned whether the author of such classic American plays as "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "A Delicate Balance" had lost his artistic edge. But Albee made a critical and popular comeback in the 1990s with plays like "The Play About The Baby" and his Pulitzer Prize winning "Three Tall Women," prompting a positive critical reassessment of much of his earlier work.

Despite being set in a particular time and place, "All Over" is not a realistic play. It is a poetically charged work of unflinching truth and lyrical beauty. Like the frail yet compassionate figures in the work of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, Albee’s characters face life and death reluctantly, but nevertheless, head-on.

Set in a New York City town house in 1971, a famous man, unseen and nidentified, lies dying in his bedroom behind the semi-sheer curtains of a canopy bed. While the doctor (William Biff McGuire) and nurse (Myra Carter) administer to the dying man, his family dutifully wait in the sitting area, trading verbal barbs, telling stories peppered with witticisms, and giving voice to long repressed resentments.

As in some of Samuel Beckett’s plays, Albee has given his characters only the most generic of names. The Wife (Rosemary Harris), The Mistress (Michael Learned), The Son (John Christopher Jones), The Daughter (Pamela Nyberg), and The Best Friend (John Carter) struggle with the reality of death and the sometimes humiliating role they played in the dying man’s life. Despite their best intentions, they don’t mourn the dying man so much as grieve the loss of their own pasts and the uncertainties of their futures.

Albee refuses to stroke his audience and doesn’t offer bite-sized heroes. These characters are steeped in feelings of ambiguity and are neither dainty, nor superficially noble. They don’t spit in the eye of fate or swagger in the face of tragedy. They moan and complain. They’re petty, cruel, and inelegantly human.

But in spite of all this, the play is sometimes very funny. Learned, playing The Mistress with a soft, matter-of-fact edge, serves up some of the best lines. Recounting the handful of lost loves in the her character’s long life, she turns to The Wife and says with a straight face, "I have cared for only three men; my own two husbands… and yours."

Much of the power of the play hinges on the growing relationship between The Wife and The Mistress. Harris and Learned have a fine chemistry, sustaining the nice razor-thin edge between reluctant affection and rancor that defines their feelings for one another. As the lights rise at the start of the play, both ladies sit at opposite sides of the stage, facing the audience, lounging like cats, legs crossed and spewing words into the air. This stand-off, tempered by their characters’ mutual understanding, generates the only real conflict in the play. Both Harris and Learned are adept at portraying the subtleties and ambiguities of the inner lives of these complicated women.

John Chistopher Jones as The Son and Pamela Nyberg as The Daughter are also excellent as the immature, yet pathetically sad, offspring. Both provide a light comic edge that respects the integrity of their characters while artfully avoiding any broad strokes or hints of caricature.

Likewise Myra Carter as The Nurse. Despite her character’s zaniness, she injects a surprising depth into the role. Whether recounting a comic story about a man who didn’t die on the Titanic as popularly believed or the horrific lack of hope offered the public as Robert Kennedy lay dying in a Los Angeles hospital in the hours after his shooting, Myra speaks as a woman with a soul.

Emily Mann’s direction is sensitive and deceptively precise. Like a high-stakes game of chess, there is not a lot of movement in the play. Long minutes go by in which the only physical action is a shifting of body position or a nodding of the head. But Mann makes these small actions count much like the winding of a spring. When things finally do erupt into some bold action, such as the slapping of a face or slamming of a door, the effect is almost shocking.

Directing a play in which the ambiguities are as important as the certainties is no easy task. Mixing a gentle theatricalism with a down-in-the-dirt realism, Mann builds a world of poetic believability that allows the characters to exist in the imagination as well as on the stage.

After seeing a play, one usually decides whether it was good or bad and then lets it go at that. But "All Over" is not so easy to dismiss. It is the sort of theatrical experience that can sit in the imagination, rising up at odd moments, waking you up at night. Dreams are said to be personal eruptions of one’s inner psyche. But plays, unlike dreams, have a recognizable beginning, middle, and end. Their effect is contained and limited. Seeing "All Over" may be as personal and unsettling a theatrical experience as you are likely to get.

All Over, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, 609-258-2787. Through March 3.

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