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Arena Stage A Delicate Balance

By • Feb 21st, 2009 • Category: Reviews
A Delicate Balance
Arena Stage
Crystal City, Arlington, VA
$25 – $66
Playing through March 15th
Reviewed February 18, 2009

From the moment the well-appointed and exquisitely detailed set of A Delicate Balance came into view, the audience knew they were in for something special. Granted, such effort was only fitting for the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of Edward Albee, one of our time’s greatest voices in theatre.

It’s an unusual play. It’s a drama, it’s a comedy, and it has neither a neat beginning nor ending. Albee favors work done in the “chamber theatre” style, where the actors frequently break the fourth wall and talk more to the audience as though in a constant soliloquy rather than interacting with each other. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once there, you’re there for the duration.

It’s an exploration into the complexities of families, of friends, of society. The characters aren’t very noble or likeable. They are just like many people you know…perhaps your mother, sister, father, husband. Ordinary people struggling with the same benign mentality that blood is thicker than water, and that there are appearances within the social order to uphold.

Agnes and Tobias, an affluent older couple, are perpetually visited by Agnes’ sister, Claire. They are about to have their four times married and soon to be four times divorced daughter Julia return home, again. And as if their combined volatile emotions weren’t enough to fill their vast home, lifelong friends Edna & Harry are coming to stay as well.

Terry Beaver gives a brilliant, understated performance as Tobias. He has an uncanny gift of forming instant relationships with anyone who steps onstage. One trusts within seconds that he does, in fact, know that person intimately, has known them for years. It creates a layer of believability that moves the story. He is skillfully matched by Ellen McLaughlin as Claire, who is brash and vibrant and unashamed of her choices in life. They have an intense rapport that begins as fondness and grows uncomfortably thick with secrets during their scene. McLaughlin has the languid grace reminiscent of a satisfied cat, and the nervous energy of scared prey, all at once.

Kathleen Chalfant as the patrician Agnes is gently caustic and seemingly strong, yet revealed to be fragile in the face of old hurts. Agnes and Claire have a long standing sibling rivalry complicated by unmasked hostility and little affection. Their banter is sharp and biting and terribly witty, and most importantly, expertly executed by the actresses.

Carla Harting plays daughter Julia with a lot of immaturity and acrimony that doesn’t always find the emotional realism needed. She does find a good balance with Tobias in a later scene, cowering as her father stands up to her in a way he never has before.

Edna and Harry (played by Helen Hedman and James Slaughter respectively), are their best friends, their dearest friends, who descend upon Agnes and Tobias like locusts. They insinuate themselves into their home, taking for granted that it’s not the best time, that their reasons for coming are bizarre, and that they are not entirely welcome.

It is here that one sees the importance of friendship, the obligation that comes along with that type of long standing relationship. It is here that one sees the façade of society, the cracks beneath the glossy veneer. Edna and Harry come in fear, the nameless, faceless fear of something beyond their perfect little world at the country club. Hedman and Slaughter do a marvelous job of giving dimension to characters who offer very little in the congeniality department.

These are professional actors; bursting with real star quality and still they possess the humbling ability to remain grounded and tough in the presence of the great words they speak.

Albee’s language is entirely unique. It has the elegant beauty of Shakespeare, lush and affected, without being antiquated. It’s grand and yet it’s subtle, with a quiet cadence that draws in and mesmerizes the listener. He employs a wonderful technique with overlapping dialogue and parallel conversations that makes the audience feel as though they’ve stumbled into the chaos integral to a family.

The costumes (Ilona Somogyi) were ideal for each and every cast member. There was a distinctive disparity to Agnes and Claire that reflected their inner selves. Agnes stayed coldly classy and almost untouchably pure in her pale palette. Claire was a true contrast in her sexy and outlandish clothing, with indulgent fabrics of velvet and snakeskin. Even the hair of the actors (Chuck Lapointe) made a statement, from Claire’s impetuously tousled curls to Edna’s perfectly shellacked helmet worthy of a Stepford Wife. These details were so carefully thought out and noticed.

Director Pam MacKinnon has successfully directed Albee’s work before; she gives this the same careful hand and insight as the others. The blocking is superb; the movement is economical and sincere. Each scene captures a photograph that stays in the mind long after it’s over. The set (Todd Rosenthal) is impossibly tall and imposing…even when filled with life it gives the illusion of emptiness, a theme that ties the play together.

A Delicate Balance is a beautiful show that does not force you to feel one extreme emotion or another. But it constantly stirs the soul, and leaves one with the knowledge that the family bond is woven with many strands of lies, truths, love and longing, and sometimes, loathing.

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