Edward Albee has had one of the longest, most celebrated careers of any U.S. playwright in his generation, with such prized dramas as "Who's...

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Edward Albee has had one of the longest, most celebrated careers of any U.S. playwright in his generation, with such prized dramas as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? ” to his credit.

But it hasn’t been all raves and roses. And 1980 was not a banner year in the dramatist’s career, to put it mildly.

On Jan. 31 that year, Albee’s “The Lady From Dubuque” premiered on Broadway, at the Morosco Theatre. A tragicomic study of how a fatally ill young woman and her intimates cope — and fail to cope — with her impending death, its debut was rocky.

There were a few positive reviews. But when Walter Kerr of The New York Times and other influential critics harshly panned “The Lady From Dubuque,” the producers chose to cut their losses. On Feb. 9, the work had its 12th and final performance at the Morosco.

Following a short run soon after in Hartford, Conn., the play largely faded from view. Yet Albee, a man of steely intellect and confidence, never considered it an artistic failure.

Nor did Seattle Repertory Theatre artistic head David Esbjornson, now staging for the Rep the first major production of “Lady from Dubuque” in a quarter century. (British director Anthony Page is prepping a London version of the work, starring Dame Maggie Smith, that opens in March.)

Albee says he always felt “Lady” got short shrift initially.

Theater preview

“The Lady From Dubuque” previews tonight-Tuesday, opens Wednesday and plays Tuesdays-Sundays through Feb. 10 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center; $10-$48 (206-443-2222 or www.seattlerep.org).

Edward Albee will give a public talk with Rep artistic head David Esbjornson at 6 p.m. Monday at Seattle Rep. Free admission with reservations required: 206-443-2222.

“Everybody I knew in the arts community seemed to like the play,” Albee commented by phone from Washington, D.C., where a hit Broadway revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner just began a multi-city tour.

“I’ve never suffered reviews that were just plain dumb, and the reviews of ‘Lady From Dubuque’ were a combination of stupidity and hostility. Some were swimming in vitriol … Certain New York critics decided I was out of fashion.”

For his part, Esbjornson became “fascinated” by the play at New York University, where classmate Tony Kushner (who later penned “Angels in America”) staged a student version.

“It just kind of stuck with me over the years,” Esbjornson noted. “The subject matter was difficult for Broadway [in 1980]. But if the play had come out just a few years later, as we were getting more aware of the AIDS epidemic, I think Edward would have been hailed as a visionary for writing it.”

Albee said he knew little of death when he devised “Lady.” “When I read it again recently, after losing so many dear friends, I thought, ‘Isn’t that amazing, Edward? You were right on target.’ Somehow I knew how dying people might react to their dying.’ “

Influenced by the death and dying theories of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the play opens with a bitchy game of 20 Questions at a party thrown by the angry, waning Jo and her anxious spouse, Sam.

Suddenly, two strangers appear: an elegant, sage older woman and her African-American male companion.

But who are they? Jo’s actual parents? Angels of death come to ease her passage? That’s for the audience to decipher. Albee does suggest that “they are what Jo needs to die. She needs this woman to be her mother, therefore this woman is there as her mother.”

After directing the lauded 2002 Broadway debut of “The Goat,” and Albee’s “The Play About the Baby” Off Broadway, Esbjornson proposed doing this closely watched revival of “Lady” with Albee’s input.

“We’ve been on the phone every other day for a while,” noted Albee, a still-vigorous man of 78, who is coming to Seattle to give a public talk and attend the Rep premiere.

“David is a very bright guy, he knows how my mind works and what I’m after.”

The cast they’ve assembled includes New York thespians Carla Harting (as Jo) and Myra Carter, an Albee veteran who fills the title role — a title that’s a joke on New Yorker founder Harold Ross’ remark that his cosmopolitan magazine wasn’t aimed at a “little old lady in Dubuque.” Kristin Flanders, Paul Morgan Stetler and other Seattle actors are also on board.

Will Seattle critics and playgoers embrace this “Lady,” and revise her reputation? It is Esbjornson’s job, in part, to see they do. He pondered having Albee update the script, but ultimately kept its late 1970s setting. “I think it reflects how after Vietnam and Nixon, people were turning inwards more and looking at the personal more than the political.

“It’s also a middle play for Edward, with some familiar themes, like the arrival of outsiders, the darkness and complexity of relationships and how … surface civility can be undermined.”

A major task for the actors? Delivering Albee’s elliptical, sometimes abstracted dialogue with maximum cogency.

Though Albee insists he is “incapable of impenetrability” in his plays, others would demur — citing the influence of such absurdist/surreal dramatists as Luigi Pirandello and Samuel Beckett on his work.

“Deciphering his language, without sacrificing the emotions of the characters, can be very hard,” Esbjornson said. “But that’s the richness of Edward’s work. There’s such intelligence behind the writing, such theatricality. He really wants to surprise and challenge the audience.”

Albee’s next chance to do so will be with his latest play, “Me, Myself and I,” and an expanded version of his classic one-act, “The Zoo Story.”

But interest in “Lady From Dubuque” has piqued his desire to see other works maligned in the 1980s get a second chance. “People should take another look at ‘The Man Who Had Three Arms,’ ” he suggested. “I think all my plays should be done again.”