Theatre at its Best: Edward Albee's Classic
Also see Bob's review of Language Archive
Agnes and Tobias are an extremely comfortable, elderly married couple who live in their large, well appointed house. Claire, Agnes' alcoholic sister, lives with them. The haughty, cold Agnes fiercely launches verbal assaults upon her warm but irresponsibly immature sister. Tobias, a bit of a tippler himself, likes Claire and defends her. They are awaiting the arrival of Agnes and Tobias' daughter Julia, who, having broken up with her fourth husband, is again returning home to reclaim "her room." All of this is normal in the pattern of their lives. However, the "delicate balance" of their relationships is toppled with the unexpected arrival of Harry, Tobias' lifelong best friend, and his wife, Edna, who have brought their luggage with them. Overwhelmed by an unfathomable dread that they felt lurking in their house, they fled in terror. Afraid to return to their home, the couple have come to live with their best friends ("there was no one else we could go to").
In a lesser playwright's hands, Harry and Edna might be perceived as merely having an anxiety attack, but such a thought never enters our minds in the presence of the genius of Edward Albee. Here, Albee has presaged the precariousness and fragility of the lives which we construct by beginning the play with the cold and controlling Agnes expressing her concerns about quickly losing her sanity. Albee unblinkingly stares into the heart of the existential fear, lurking in all humankind, that our short lives may be without value or meaning. Albee also dissects the lives that people construct and the underlying purposes of personal relationships. What does one owe to, and what is one entitled to expect from, family and friends? Albee's answer to that last question is not as simple as one might expect. What you can expect is to find yourself reconsidering your own values in the light of Albee's insight.
None of this is hard going. The wit and diamond-hard brilliance of Albee's writing is exhilarating and full of delight. Compelled to exchange apologies with Agnes, Claire responds, "I'm sorry for ... bringing out your brutality." Agnes tells Claire to "go into a bathtub full of gin and drown yourself; and not spend a whole life doing it." There are any number of profound quotes. Such as these observations from Agnes: "Do we dislike happiness? We manufacture so much of our own despair"; and (we have come to the time in our lives) "when memory takes over, corrects facts, and makes them tolerable."
Director Emily Mann has elicited detailed, non-histrionic performances which illuminate the rich manifold of issues and themes here present. There are no broad gestures or attempts to play to the gallery. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the viewer to focus in tightly upon the stage.
Kathleen Chalfant's Agnes is a woman whose only concern is her narcissistic self and the image which she projects in support of it. Every word, inflection and gesture is calculated. Her Agnes is giving a performance as she expresses love and concern for others. Even when we learn of the wounds which may have contributed to Agnes' cold heart, Chalfant will not permit us to embrace her. I do not think Albee would have it any other way.
John Glover effortlessly conveys the genial ineffectiveness of the essentially decent, but ineffectual, Tobias. There are layers to Tobias that are hinted at early, but not fully revealed until the third act. Like his playwright, Glover lightly plants the seeds which allow the emerging depiction of Tobias to feel integral to the play and role.
Penny Fuller is delightful, but not overly delightful, as Claire. The temptation to garner guffaws and sympathy has to come with the territory here, but Fuller effectively provides the modulation to remind us that, except in very small doses, it is difficult to deal with drunks. James A. Stephens (Harry) and Roberta Maxwell (Edna) convincing portray the existential dread which has brought the couple to and keeps them at their friend's house. Maxwell strongly and effectively projects the selfish and arrogant sense of entitlement of Edna, whereas Stephens captures a Harry who might not have even sought refuge here if not pushed to it by her. Francesca Faridany amply fulfills all the requirements for the role of the late in her thirties, going on sixteen, Julia. Faridany's (and Albee's) Julia is well calibrated to lead us to blame her parents as such as we do her for her predicament.
The setting by Daniel Ostling and lighting by Lap Chi Chu are first rate. The large detailed set which fully depicts a large, comfortable, but colorlessly painted and furnished living room, Tobias' den off to one side, and front hallway with staircase and dining room upstage is spot-on. Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes capture the status and personalities of the characters.
As it was in 1966, the time setting is described as "Now." Aside from the fact that it has become a rare treat to see a beautifully structured three act play, there is nothing here to make us think anything different. Thus, this Albee play is truly beginning to look like a timeless classic. A Delicate Balance is a tragedy full of the joy of great, soul satisfying theatre.
A Delicate Balance continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday (except 2/17) 7:30pm; Friday, Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Saturday 3 pm; Sunday 2 pm) through February 17, 2013, at the McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton 08540. Box Office: 609-258-2787; online: www.mccarter.org.
A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee; directed by Emily Mann