A Delicate Balance
By Roz Friedman
Artistic Director James Bundy has set the bar very high by assembling a splendid cast of actors and directing them fearlessly in one of Edward Albee’s most telling and most traditional plays. As we get older, works that seemed extremely crazy when we were younger are now laced with clarity. This was so with the Westport (C) Playhouse production of Beckett’s Happy Days. It is even more so with A Delicate Balance, which won a Pulitzer in 1963.
On Chen–Yu Peng’s handsome set, lit warmly by Alan C. Edwards, a very large living room with detailed walls of mahogany, fine furniture, and accessories, implying wealth and comfort, we meet a family --of sorts. There’s Agnes, the fulcrum of the group, played with straightforward grace by Kathleen Chalfant; beautifully attired in Aaron P. Mastin’s elegant outfits, in the first scene she is telling her husband, Tobias, that her greatest fear is that she might go mad. She would end up in a bin, he would have no one to take care of him. Tobias----a part for which Edward Herrmann is so well-suited-- he always appears to have been born wearing a blue blazer, rep tie and grey slacks---quietly sips his drink. Tobias seems content, even when his alcoholic, outspoken sister-in-law, Claire, interrupts by reminding him of a past indiscretion, which took place after the death of his young son. He is also placid when it is announced that his daughter, Julia, is coming home after leaving her fourth husband.
Ellen McLaughlin, known best for her featured role in Angels in America and as a successful playwright, is stunning as Claire, a rebel with a cause, who is intent on torturing her sister. Agnes is incensed and frustrated by her sister’s drinking and destructive behavior; yet Claire continues to live with them, perhaps because she fears leaving. Tobias is more of an enabler, making drinks for Claire, while she says she’s just a willful drinker. Keira Naughton as daughter, Julia, gives a fiercely comic performance as the “spoiled child,” a grown woman who fears growing up.
Into this already fractured home enters best friends Edna and Harry. They are fleeing unknown fear –ah- there’s that word again-and have decided, much to the shock of Agnes, Tobias, Claire and Julia, to move-in and stay with their best friends, forever! Kathleen Butler is a marvel as the resolute Edna, who claims ownership as both friend and god-mother. After all, she says to Tobias, friendship is like a marriage, isn’t it? John Carter’s Harry is a toady for his wife; it hard to imagine that he and Tobias had an out of marriage affair with the same woman, a secret that hangs over all like a black cloud. It is therefore quite surprising when Tobias explodes with pent-up emotion, begging Harry to stay, because it is his right. Edward Herrmann delivers this last act monologue with great passion. A Delicate Balance ends on a somewhat sad and maybe hopeful note, with the family set to face each other once again without best friends in the guest room.
A Delicate Balance –three hours –two intermissions- a fascinating exploration at the Yale Rep through November 13.
This review originally aired on WMNR 88.1FM FINE ARTS PUBLIC RADIO