A Delicate Balance
By Edward Albee
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
What are we to make of this strange and beautiful story, as mysterious as a carnivorous plant in a hospital room? What can we say about the brightly-colored inhabitants of this hothouse world, who squawk like macaws against the pretensions which inhibit them? Only this: that Albee, abetted by Director Pam MacKinnon and Arena’s production, has forced us to stare at the truth again. We should be grateful.
Let us consider, then, the bare bones of the story. Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant) and Tobias (Terry Beaver) live in a grand home with Agnes’ drunk sister Claire (Ellen McLaughlin). The living room – the focal point of Todd Rosenthal’s exquisite set – features an Everest of bookshelves, each of them loaded with literary tomes, and a cabinet full of top-shelf liquors. Agnes and Tobias are awaiting the arrival of their daughter Julia (Carla Harting), who has become an expert in failed marriages – she is only 36, and is leaving her fourth husband.
Suddenly, and without explanation, Tobias’ best friend Harry (James Slaughter) and his wife Edna (Helen Hedman) arrive. They are frightened – of something – and cannot stand to be alone in their own homes. Only in Tobias’ household can they be safe.
The play proceeds apace. Harry and Edna, having shaken off the malaise that haunted them, put on their jolly faces, and set to the serious business of depleting the liquor cabinet. Julia arrives, and rages against the presence of the interlopers. Indeed she tolerates Claire’s presence only thinly. There is harsh language, slapping, gunplay, and, afterward, dinner, prepared by the servants.
Notwithstanding what you may have heard about this play, it is not about Claire’s boozing but about Tobias’ dilemma, which can be formulated thus: What the hell are all those people doing in his house? Tobias, in Beaver’s towering portrayal, is a good man, or at least a good enough man: patient, tolerant, flexible, and generous of spirit. He placates his bitter, brittle, aphoristic (best one: “men work to make ends meet, until they meet the end”) wife, who hates her sister. He placates the sister, a mean drunk (she once went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, assumed the podium, announced in a little-girl voice that “I am a alcoholic” and curtsied, showing her contempt for the suffering people watching her) who hates Tobias’ wife. He is broken-hearted by Julia’s whiny, self-indulgent personality, but he shows it only rarely, and apologizes afterward. He is good in the old-school sense of the word: he knows what good people should feel in every situation, and then does his best to act as though he does feel that way.
But this does not explain why he must hold his house open for all these nutty people, who promise the ruination of his peaceful life and threaten his relationship with his wife. There is much talk about “rights” and “entitlements”, but aside from Agnes, the only person in the room with any rights is Tobias. Why, then, does he not assert them? The answer comes, if not clearly, at least comprehensibly in a long, harrowing, third-act speech Tobias delivers, ostensibly to Harry but in truth to himself. When considered along with some revelations teased out during the course of the play – an infidelity, a turning away from his wife during an hour of pain, a very sad story about a cat – Tobias tells us something so searing that it is better that we view it indirectly.
Albee says that he does not write a play until he is first so comfortable with his characters that he could take a walk with them, discussing matters which have nothing to do with the text. A Delicate Balance is so polished, so gorgeously textured and detailed, that it appears as though Albee has walked not just with his characters but with the creatures which appear only offstage – Julia’s disaffected husband, for example, or Tobias’ cat. Albee continues to write the best dialogue in the world, and this superb cast has seized every crack and sizzle of it. Beaver has created a radiant Tobias, at once unique and instantly recognizable. You can almost smell the alcohol sweat on Ellen McLaughlin’s dipsomaniacal sister (she insists that she is not an alcoholic, which makes her drunkenness, as Agnes points out, willful), so strong is her work. The play begins with a speech about madness which seems a little stiff and out of place and I did not much like Chalfant’s delivery of it, but everything she does afterward is pitch-perfect, and she makes the way Agnes manipulates her family while riding on a sea of self-righteous arrogance as clear as glass. Harting, Hedman, and Slaughter do similarly excellent work in less complex roles.
I must admit that there are a few moments of this production which confuse me. MacKinnon has Harry and Edna wear their overcoats throughout their initial meeting with Tobias and his family, and thereafter as they go upstairs, to bed. And though Albee has worked with his production team to contemporize this play, which debuted on Broadway in 1966, he has left in a passage in which Claire describes scandalizing a department store clerk by asking for a topless swimsuit…something which was passé by 1971. But Albee is essentially past the point where his writing can be criticized, and MacKinnon is a longstanding, successful interpreter of Albee’s work, so I will just man up and confess that I do not understand these elements of the production.
The essence of good theater is truth, and Albee’s truth is a hard one, told well. Go, and take a very smart friend (I did). There will be much to talk about on the ride home, and for many days thereafter.
Running Time: 3 hours, with two intermissions.
When: through March 15. Tues, Wed and Sun evening shows are at 7.30, except that on Sun, March 1, the evening show is at 6, and there is no evening show on Tuesday, March 3. All other evening shows are at 8. Sat and Sunmatinees are at 2, except that there is no matinee on Sun, March 1 or Sun, March 15. There are additional noon matinees on Wed, February 25, Tues, March 3, and Wed, March 11.
Where: Arena Stage, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington, VA.