“A Delicate Balance” at Yale Rep Stands Test of Time

By Amy J. Barry

A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee opens with middle-aged Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant) standing in her cavernous suburban living room/library telling her husband Tobias (Edward Herrmann) that she fears one day she will lose her mind—which may be sooner than later—and goes on to complain about her high maintenance sister, Claire (Ellen McLaughlin), who then arrives and begins describing a recent Alcoholics Anonymous meeting:

“What I did not have in common with those people?” Claire asks. “That they were alcoholics, and I was not? That I was just a drunk? That they
couldn’t help it; I could, and wouldn’t?  That they were sick, and I was merely… willful?”

Further along in the play, Tobias offers an impassioned, dark confessional to the two women about the day he realized his cat didn’t like him any more and how he resented being judged, but even more so, being betrayed, and how he had the cat put to sleep (he insisted killed).

And then best friends of Agnes and Tobias, Edna (Kathleen Butler) and Harry (John Carter) come to stay with them—indefinitely—because they’re too frightened to remain in their house and can’t articulate why. They move into the upstairs bedroom that belongs to boomerang child, 36-year-old Julia (Keira Naughton), who runs home to mommy and daddy after each of her marriages fail.

When Julia arrives—marriage #4 is on the rocks—Tobias regales her with mixed messages—his resentment that she keeps returning to “fill this house with your whining” while simultaneously insisting “You belong here!”

The themes of deep-seated anxiety in an unpredictable world, of empty-nesters and 12-step meetings, of how we really feel about our pets and what they represent, and children who keep coming home because their parents can’t let them grow up, are remarkably as fresh and relevant in 2010 as they were when A Delicate Balance was first staged in 1966 (winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama) and not surprisingly winning a Tony Award in 1996 for best revival of a play.

The time is  “now” and it could easily still be “now”—that’s the power of Albee’s writing—his keen and unapologetic observations about relationships that so famously weather the test of time.

Albee’s words are done justice delivered by an ensemble that easily comes together under the discerning direction of James Bundy on the Yale Rep stage, the height and breadth of which is a perfect backdrop for the well-appointed set by Chien-Yu Peng with its dark paneling and floor-to-ceiling bookcases. It conveys the sense that the characters feel small and trapped, despite the vast size of the home—the obligatory statement of wealth.

Lighting by Alan C. Edwards—dark interiors with cold white morning rays filtering through the windows emphasizes the sameness and despair of Agnes and Tobias’s lives, never directly talking about the son who died, the daughter who won’t leave.

Hermann gives a powerful performance—he embodies Tobias—the pensive patriarch who attempts to keep all the strong-minded women in his life at bay and realizes, pouring another drink, how without purpose his days have become.

Chalfant has the most challenging character—the intelligent, complex, controlling Agnes. Chalfant plays the role with forcefully, although at times her responses feel like rehearsed lectures, but then, that’s Agnes’s persona.

McLaughlin is earnest and darkly funny as Claire, but tends toward drama queen caricature. Naughton could also go beyond the shrill adult-child and reveal more about why Julia keeps undermining her own happiness. Butler and Carter are marvelous as Edna and Harry. Both passive and demanding, they’re an eccentric, yet ordinary couple—frightened and frightening.

It makes sense that there are two short intermissions in the intense, dialogue-driven, over two-and-a-half hour play, but the third act doesn’t quite keep up the momentum of the first two and starts to fizzle, although it picks up again with Agnes’s eloquent, somewhat hopeful final words, reminding us that despite everything, we carry on.

 “And when the daylight comes again...comes order with it. Come now; we can begin the day.”

Tickets for A Delicate Balance can be purchased online at www.yalerep.org, by phone at 203-432-1234, and in person at the Yale Rep Box Office (1120 Chapel Street, New Haven). Student, senior, and group rates are available.

This review appears in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers Nov.10-11, 2010 and is online at Zip06.com.

 

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