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Seattle by Jonathan Frank


A Delicate Balance

In Edward Albee's plays, characters and situations that are dangerously close to falling off balance are a trademark. Be it a seemingly normal stranger you meet at the zoo or a faculty couple who invite you over for an innocent drink, his characters stand teetering on the edge of control and sanity, with one small word or action being all it takes to send them over the edge. In one of his most personal and autobiographical plays, the Pulitzer Prize winning A Delicate Balance, Albee explores the shifts, sometimes small, sometimes profound, which alter the precarious and shifting see-saw that is family life.

Currently running at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, A Delicate Balance originally opened on Broadway in 1966 and starred Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn as Agnes and Tobias, two characters more than loosely based on Albee's own parents. The play takes place in their upscale household, which is beset on all sides by invaders who constantly shift the balance of power and stability within the home. Agnes' drunk of a sister, Claire, has established a firm beachhead, much to the disgust of Agnes, and has become a permanent, usually intoxicated, fixture. Other invaders consist of their daughter, Julia, who makes a habit of returning home between husbands, and their very best friends in the whole world, Edna and Harry, who have decided they would rather live with their friends than face a nameless fear at home.

A Delicate Balance has recently had two high profile revivals; on Broadway starring George Grizzard, Rosemary Harris and Elaine Stritch in 1996, and in London, starring Maggie Smith as the scene stealing Claire. Indeed, one of the major balancing acts in the play is the difficulty in keeping the balance between Agnes, the true center and self-described fulcrum of the piece, and the showier secondary character, Claire. When I saw it in London, the piece was completely off-center, with the stage and the play belong to Dame Maggie Smith. In the current production running at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, there is a true balance, and the part of Agnes, wonderfully played by Beth Dixon, shines through.

A Delicate Balance
Michael Winters and Beth Dixon
Director M. Burke Walker has done an excellent job, indeed, of keeping Claire, played by local favorite Barbara Dirickson, in check and at a human level. This is, by no means, an easy feat. Claire gets all the showy lines and is often times the only person on stage who truly sees what is occurring; or at least admits to it. When the show focuses on the difficulty of balancing familial and social obligations, the show shines, especially in scenes involving Edna, subtly played by Cynthia Lauren Tewes (yes, of "Love Boat" fame). Her portrayal of the houseguest-from-hell is masterful, portraying Edna as the clone of Beth Dixon's Agnes in terms of practicality and emotional reserve. When the play deals with the balance between and within the family itself, it sometimes falters. Michael Winters is only partly successful as the patriarch, Tobias, who's third act monologue goes on far too long and becomes a squirm inducing mess. Jan Leslie Harding was unable to bring any substance to one of the weakest and most one-dimensional characters seen on stage, the shrill screamer of a daughter, Julia, who just begs to be slapped (and thankfully does).

While the play is a good fifteen minutes too long, the actors and occasional pithy insight or humorous moment makes the show feel like a good friend who has accidentally overstayed his or her welcome, rather than a houseguest from hell who won't leave. A Delicate Balance has been extended and runs at the Seattle Repertory Theatre through February 25th. For ticket reservations call the box office at 206-443-2222 or visit their website, www.seattlerep.org

Photo by Chris Bennion




- Jonathan Frank



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