Very few modern playwrights handle family relationships with the complexity and creativity that Edward Albee does. His 1971 play, All Over, is set against a death bed vigil, a harrowing time made all the more difficult by the resentments crippling most of the play's seven characters. Death is foremost on all of their minds, but it's a feeling that spreads too easily in the wrong way to the audience.
To be fair, though, creating the pall of encroaching death is one thing that this production gets unfailingly right. Emily Mann has directed the play with what is, at times, a brilliant lethargy, a sense that the characters are moving through a stifling humidity that restricts their thoughts, words, and movements to a great degree. Everyone sits or stands like they are trying to avoid the inevitable, while being forced to accept it.
It's very appropriate, and feels highly realistic. It's well amplified by Thomas Lynch's homey yet sterile set design and Allen Lee Hughes's lights, which create a hazy, unreal glow. But when this all-consuming heaviness needs to fall away and make room for the volcanically emotional outbursts of verbal conflict or even just the memories that sustain the characters from one moment to the next, such solace is not to be found. The characters in this All Over die very well, but they never once live.
The two people who come closest are the central figures, fighting for control and the ultimate respect for the man they both love, yet who is slipping away more with each passing minute. Rosemary Harris is his wife of fifty years, and Michael Learned his mistress of about twenty. They each burn inside to fulfill the singular role of love of his life, yet neither has everything she needs or wants.
So, they spend most of the play fighting. Covertly or openly, trying to top each other with insults or jokes or reminiscences, it's a constant power struggle. Harris and Learned bring much to their roles, and when they really go at each other, especially near the end of the second act, the play gains an energy it lacks much the rest of the time.
But it's not enough; there aren't enough of these direct confrontations to keep the play afloat from beginning to end. There is a supporting cast, but Harris and Learned get little help from them. Bill Moor is decent as the ancient doctor, and Myra Carter's zany nurse gets a few laughs, but Pamela Nyberg and Patrick Garner as the children and John Carter as the best friend don't seem to make the most, or make anything, of their parts. They don't relate with Harris as well as Learned does, and their sense of a relationship - any relationship - with her doesn't come across very well at all.
This undermines Mann's work; Albee's words try to convince us there's a group of people with a long, involved history here, and it never plays that way. The core of the play crumbles and, by the time this production has ended, the whole show makes little sense. This All Over becomes little more than a combination of words, two fine dramatic performances, and a number of other, much stranger and less effective line readings that could be in any play.
Albee's unique style and facility with spoken language demand better. All Over, potentially powerful and insightful, deserves it as well.
Roundabout Theatre Company