A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee. Directed by David Auburn.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"The souring side of love."
Lifeís relationships seen as tots on a teeter-totter resting on the fine point of a metronome is what playwright Edward Albee presented to his audiences in this play back in 1966. Time is definitely ticking away at a steady beat and the motion of either immature human will undoubtedly upset the delicate balance that keeps both parties floating in mid-air. Connecting with the ground below as one tumbles, and dealing with the open, unsupportable air as the other one must in turn do, is not an option for the characters in this play. Sadly, for all involved every see-saw has its Marjorie Daw (a silent screen actress, an orphan with a baby brother left in her care when she was only fifteen years old) and in this play she exists as a troubled teenager who has never grown up to be her actual 36 years old self.
That is Julia, the daughter of Agnes and Tobias, niece of Claire, god-daughter of Harry and Edna. She is announced, in Act One, as coming home from a troubled fourth marriage. She has come home before, found succor and gone on to the next relationship that has failed her. This is a different visit. Her Aunt Claire, sister of Agnes, who is an unredeemable alcoholic, the patron saint of failed relationships it would seem, is in residence rather than in rehab. Jullia's appearance comes at a bad time for the family triple; friends have moved into Juliaís room and wonít leave. Bang goes the teeter-totter. Smack comes the response.
A solid marriage, one in which everything is working in unison, is present in Harry and Edna. It is even clearer in this contextual home where Agnes and Tobias are clearly not only not in unison, they are seldom even on the same side of the page. Poles apart, they live their lives in an easily modulated manner, outwardly presentable and inwardly shaken. Julia, their child, is even more a misfit in this environment.
She needs a mother, and a father - both in the popular television idiom of a "Father Knows Best" clan - and a loving supporting aunt, godparents who would have her to their home for a separate chat, perhaps. Instead she finds her room, her place, occupied, and an edgy, angry, disapproving group of people who only want her to go away and let them live out their separate lives.
That is Albeeís vision. What he gets in the final main-stage production at the Berkshire Theatre Festival doesnít quite match up to this situation.
Jonathan Hogan plays a sweetly downtrodden man who is better at mixing a drink he knows he shouldnít be making for his sister-in-law than he is at listening to the ardent pleas of his daughter for a bit of understanding and compassion. He is a compassionate man; he makes that very clear. It just seems as though too much of it plays out in the wrong directions. Mostly Hogan follows the script and gets things right, but that is technical performance and the underlying need to be emotional in a world that wonít accept that from him is never presented to us.
Mia Dillon as Edna, the wife/intruder, never takes the step that Albee demands of her. In a home not her own she needs to take possession. She needs to stem hysteria with a hard slap. She needs to intimidate in her own sweet way. Dillon never gets to that edge. Instead she takes an insipid tone and turns it into monotone in performance. Her lack of authority and energy is where the play suffers the most...or almost the most.
As Julia we have Mia Barron who is clothed wrong, directed wrong, played wrong, Juliaís current husband is against everything, she tells her parents, but it is clear that she means everything Tobias and Agnes, and by extension Julia, stand for and believe in. Costume designer Wade Laboissonniere has ignored the social standing of these people and given Julia jeans and made her into a 60s hippy with long hair. This is not Julia. Julia is her motherís child, her fatherís dreadnought, that happily loaded battleship of a woman who is clinging to childishness as a weapon. Not in this production. Here she is a whimperer and that just won't do.
Keir Dullea does a nice job with Harry, Ednaís husband. The role is somewhat sympathetic, but again the director misses the point by making him too likeable and not someone dealing with an unexplainable, inner fear. But Dullea does as well as anyone could under this misdirection. We can see why Tobias would want him to stay close.
Agnes is played to the regal hilt by Maureen Anderman who clearly gets it; she knows intrinsically who her character is and how to play her. With the right opposite(s) on the teeter-totter she would clearly have the challenge she needs to hold the play, and its incidents, together in that delicate balance that she is presented with at every turn. Anderman has the bearing and the voice and wears the clothes well, even with a dressing gown that is too new, too stiff. This is a stellar performance in the play as written, but it is a bit out of step with the play as directed. Nonetheless it is the right performance of the role that Albee has created.
About the best performance on this stage is Lisa Emeryís Claire. Loose-limbed, loose moralled, alcoholic Claire who has a yen for inclusion is delivered alive and well and holding up her end of things masterfully. If the play was about her this would be fabulous. Instead we have someone to enjoy and almost love, but she is not in the same play as the others. Also in the wrong costumes, she is still worth watching; her work is so enjoyable and so much fun that she is just about worth the price of admission.
David Auburn, the director, has somehow missed the concept and lost the suspense, the danger of the play. He gets most of the words in, but little of the authorís intent. He and the cast basically miss the urgency, the very real fear, the "plague" brought into play by carriers of that psychological germ who never realize what they do. Without the layers that Albee has created, but not put into words all the time, the play is just a play and not an experience and this show needs that experiential level to succeed.
It is good to hear this dialogue again, to listen to the sound of people as Albee hears them, but that isnít enough to fully satisfy the authorís intent or the audienceís expectations. I am glad to have seen some wonderful work here, but I am saddened at being offered the shallow end of the swimming pool in a suburban setting where diving is not only allowed, it is mandated.
Keir Dullea and Jonathan Hogan; photo: Jaime Davidson
Lisa Emery; photo: Jaime Davidson
Maureen Anderman and Mia Dillon; photo: Jaime Davidson
A Delicate Balance plays through September 4 at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, located on Route 7 in Stockbridge, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-298-5576.