Although their marriage has withstood the test of time, Agnes (Susan Sullivan) still wants to repair some rather large damage in her relationship with Tobias (David Selby). She'd like the privacy to deal with that, but her sister Claire (O-Lan Jones) is living with them. On top of that, they receive the news that their daughter Julia (Deborah Puette) is returning home after leaving her fourth husband. More surprising still is the sudden appearance of their best friends Edna (Lily Knight) and Harry (Mark Costello), who have left their own home in terror and moved in with Agnes and Tobias.
Sullivan's performance is acutely attuned to the fact that the person who seems the strongest on the surface (Agnes) is also the one who talks the most about going mad. She delivers reams of dialogue with casual panache, portraying the role as an alpha female whose neuroses are beginning to make her more vulnerable. Jones is very amusing as the perpetually drunk Claire, nailing a monologue about the supposed inadequacies of AA. Puette is fabulous as the increasingly distressed Julia, quickly regressing from surly petulance to hysterical mania. Knight excels at turning Edna from a fearful refugee to a newly empowered bully reveling in her "rights." Costello is more sympathetic as Harry, a reasonably decent man who quickly realizes his own hypocrisy.
The revelation here, however, is Selby, who gives a performance of stunning emotional power. His Tobias is a man who's tried all his life to be kind and forgiving, but there's something uncertain behind his eyes. As the play progresses, this inner conflict haltingly steps into the light in moments of startling anger, particularly in one disturbing monologue about an ill-starred pet. Finally, however, his desire to be a good man is what stands out in a confused, heartbreaking monologue that Selby delivers like a man trying to sacrifice himself to save the world. It's a breathtaking portrayal.
Director Robin Larsen, who among her many talents is being a master at tricky familial dramas, from productions of Four Places and The Fall to Earth, leads her cast to layered, brilliant work. When Larsen helms a show, it's in good hands. Two things struck me upon seeing Albee's play after reading it decades ago. The first is that it's quite funny, in a black comedy kind of way. The second is how ambitious it iswhat do friendship or love really mean in the world? If there's a social contract, can one cash in on it? Albee asks how much one might be willing to do for a best friend or a child or a spouse, and the answers to those questions form the delicate balance of the title, the grace notes that keep the world from sliding into chaos.
This, simply, is a must-see revival of a theatrical masterpiece.
A Delicate Balance plays at the Odyssey Theatre through June 15, 2014. For tickets and information, see www.OdysseyTheatre.com.
The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble presents A Delicate Balance, written by Edward Albee. Directed by Robin Larsen. Set Design Tom Buderwitz; Costume Design Dianne K. Graebner; Lighting Design Leigh Allen; Sound Design Christopher Moscatiello; Stage Manager Alexx Zachary.