Free-floating anxiety may permeate the lives of far too many in these recessionary, politically volatile times. But hard-to-pin-down fear and generalized anxiety have been around for as long as humans have struggled to cope with the pressures of life, as Edward Albee’s 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning A Delicate Balance so brilliantly illustrates.
The first of three Albee plays to win the Pulitzer ( Seascape and Three Tall Women are the others), A Delicate Balance is getting a superb revival at Palm Beach Dramaworks. Director William Hayes’ masterful production illuminates the world of the play’s well-to-do dysfunctional family while underscoring the timelessness of Albee’s witty, withering, profoundly rich play.
Like Albee’s earlier Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which was recommended but passed over for the 1963 Pulitzer, A Delicate Balance is a complex three-act drama that seems to fly by. That doesn’t mean that Hayes and an extraordinarily fine cast are pushing or pacing the play too quickly. Albee has crafted a timelessly riveting piece of theater, and the Dramaworks production remains engaging start to finish.
Of the six characters in the play, three form a central triangle. Agnes (Maureen Anderman) and her husband Tobias (Dennis Creaghan) are a long-married, patrician couple settled into a life that is intricately controlled by the hyperarticulate Agnes. Agnes’ alcoholic sister Claire (Angie Radosh) is living with them in their elegantly appointed suburban home (the tasteful living area, with its critical-to-the-plot bar and muted color palette, is by Michael Amico).
The courtly, retired Tobias keeps his emotional distance from the ongoing battle between his judgmental wife and her deliberately provocative sister, in part by agreeing with Agnes’ observations and pouring Claire another drink. Reflexively, he is an agreeable yet disengaged man.
The delicate balance of the couple’s lives begins to teeter wildly with the arrival of their best friends, Edna (Laura Turnbull) and Harry (Rob Donohoe), and a fourth return to the nest by Julia (Anne Bates), Agnes and Tobias’ 36-year-old daughter. The pals have arrived seeking refuge from a nameless fear. Julia, the perpetual adolescent, is about to pull the plug on her most recent marriage. The neediness and conflicts among friends and family lead to the ripping open of long-closed wounds.
Anderman, an experienced Albee actress with a host of Broadway credits, makes Agnes a chic, smart purveyor of vitriol. Dressed by costume designer Erin Amico in classic clothing and pearls, Anderman’s Agnes is stinging, frustrated and manipulative while maintaining a mannered veneer. From halfway back in the Dramaworks space, she’s tough to hear through much of the first act, and that’s a shame: Anderman is an Albee virtuoso.
Creaghan is low-key but great as her mate, his matter-of-fact delivery amplifying the horror in Tobias’ story about an unfriendly cat. And he’s superb as he delivers Tobias’ sputtering “aria” about why his friends cannot – yet must – stay. Radosh is the play’s boozy, truth-telling life force as Claire. She is the disruptive yin to her sister’s controlling yang, and when she’s offstage, she’s missed.
Bates delivers a Julia that supplies all of the character’s juvenile, hysterical petulance, making it tough to muster any sympathy for a pampered princess who’s a serial loser at love. Turnbull and Donohoe play Edna and Harry’s odd, absurd demands as though the couple’s expectations were utterly logical, a key to making their shapeless fear viable.
A Delicate Balance is a play grounded in a specific era, place and class. But as the new Dramaworks production so amply demonstrates, this masterwork by one of the country’s greatest playwrights continues to be emotionally gripping, of-the-moment drama.