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A Delicate Balance

Edward Albee's enduringly rewarding work is given a thrilling production at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. logo
Maureen Anderman and Jonathan Hogan
in A Delicate Balance
(© Jaime Davidson)
However did Edward Albee, as a young man in his mid-thirties, come to understand so well the amorphous dread that accompanies advanced middle age? Mortality -- and the concomitant reckoning due -- would be its formal name, though the notion is mostly skittered around in his 1966 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, A Delicate Balance, now being revived at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. David Auburn -- himself a Pulitzer-winning playwright -- helms a thrilling production of this enduringly rewarding work.

The play, true to its title, is indeed delicate. The psychic wounds on display tend to be couched within the bounds of socially permissible (if barbed) drawing-room repartee, and further muted by an ever-flowing font of alcohol. Even so, you can't escape the sense of internal screaming.

At the outset of this subtle work, set in an instantly recognizable stratum of upscale suburbia (kudos to designer R. Michael Miller for replicating the repressed, lockstep décor), Agnes (the magnificent Maureen Anderman) addresses her fear of looming nonbeing obliquely, by nattering wittily about her patently unfounded fear of imminent senility. Her husband, Tobias (Jonathan Hogan, in an anchoring performance of extraordinary depth), is a more passive fellow sufferer, willing to sit vigil against the encroaching dark. Their best friends, Edna and Harry (Mia Dillon and Keir Dullea), are unapologetically open about their own existential angst, even if they're unable to put a name on the "terror" (Agnes' label) that impels them to seek sanctuary in the middle of the night.

The appearance of these interlopers seems to delight Claire (Lisa Emery), Edna's alcoholic sister and live-in nemesis, who is always up for a bit of insurrectionist chaos -- every drunk should be so charming -- but it infuriates Julia (Mia Barron), Edna and Tobias' 36-year-old daughter, who has rushed home to have her wounds nursed after a fourth failed marriage.

Julia's job, beyond providing comic relief, is to be something of a reality check (what are these people doing here, anyway?), and in playing her as juvenilely whiny, Barron throws off the balance somewhat: entitled would be more the ticket. (The indeterminately drab, not-quite-hippie outfit provided by costume designer Wade Laboissonniere is also confusing: What are we meant to take her for?) Any credibility gap, however, is quickly picked up by Emery. The way she plays it, Claire's flirtatious rapport with Tobias would seem to lay to rest the enduring mystery of whether she was in fact the "young woman" with whom he once had an affair.

For the most part, Agnes is having none of the unsavory sentiments that threaten to swamp her well-run household. Anderman plays this arch martinet as a woman so tightly wound, you half expect her jaw muscles to snap. Yet on rare occasions -- for instance, during Tobias's long and eerie reminiscence about a cat that seemingly ceased to care for him -- a genuine empathy peeks through.

And it's in the denouement, of course, that the hitherto recessive, pacification-prone Tobias really shows his hand, or lack thereof. Hogan has banked Tobias's desperation so deeply, it's both logical and devastating.

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