Carla Harting and Charlie Matthes
in The Lady from Dubuque
(© Chris Bennion)
Carla Harting and Charlie Matthes
in The Lady from Dubuque
(© Chris Bennion)
When even the agonized cries of a dying woman don't evoke much empathy, you know you're in trouble. That's the case with the Seattle Repertory Theatre's revival of Edward Albee's The Lady From Dubuque, currently burdening the Bagley Wright stage with a crowd of repellent characters. It's not just their vicious little hearts and casual cruelty -- this is Albee territory, after all -- but the complete absence of any spark of humanity that makes the play seem like a very long trip.

At the center of the drama, competently piloted by David Esbjornson, are Jo (Carla Harting) and Sam (Charlie Matthes), who are hosting a regular gathering of friends in their home. Jo is dying; and as the evening wears on, she suffers increasingly frequent and intense bouts of pain. Harting's Jo is like a woman with a vat of battery acid, spraying her guests with caustic humor. She's clearly not enjoying herself (and neither is anyone else), but she's helpless to stop.

The party guests include the boorish Fred (Hans Altwies) and his deceptively "dumb" girlfriend Carol (Chelsey Rives), as well as the downtrodden Edgar (Paul Morgan Stetler) and his officious wife Lucinda (Kristin Flanders), perfectly turned out in costume designer Elizabeth Hope Clancy's pink argyle sweater, crisp khaki skirt, and pearls. Lucinda is singled out for special ridicule by the others, and she suffers the brunt of Jo's withering attacks. What inspires this singular cruelty? Is it her outfit? Flanders is a capable actor, but her Lucinda registers as no more repugnant than the rest of the crowd.

Throughout the first act, the play is stagy and flat, and the actors seem self-conscious. Matthes is particularly lead-footed, destroying any hope that his Sam might supply the missing heart of the play. Eventually, the party guests depart (or are driven off), and Jo descends more deeply into pain. Before making their way upstairs to bed, she and Sam discuss questions of mortality. But the important one remains unspoken: Is it intermission yet?

Like the sun breaking through a leaden sky, the arrival of a mysterious couple (Myra Carter and Frank X) on the empty stage sends the production zinging to life. It's Elizabeth, the eponymous lady from Dubuque, and her courtly, razor-sharp companion Oscar. With Jo still upstairs, Oscar and Elizabeth bat the question of identity around like a beach ball over Sam's groggy head. Is Elizabeth really Jo's mother, as she claims? (Sam insists not.) Who exactly is Oscar, with his encyclopedic mind and mastery of martial arts?

Sadly, the party guests return on various pretexts, and with them the production sinks to earth again. What should be shocking barely registers as a surprise. Eventually, Jo must choose between Sam and the comforting lady from Dubuque. In the end, it doesn't much matter.