A Delicate Balance
Kathleen Chalfant and Terry Beaver offer top-notch performances in the Arena Stage's exquisite revival of Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
As always, the breakdown of the old order is part of Albee's story, but the focus here is squarely on the play's framework -- in which a couple of wealthy, old-line suburbanites are forced by sinister insecurity to doubt the ties of family and companionship. Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant) and Tobias (Terry Beaver), who should be enjoying their retirement years in quietude in their elegant suburban home, instead end up with a house full of interlopers, including Agnes' flamboyant, alcoholic sister Claire (Ellen McLaughlin) and their immature and ill-disciplined daughter Julia (Carla Harting), home again between marriages at age 36. Adding combustion to the unwieldy mix is the unexpected arrival of Agnes and Tobias's best friends, Harry (James Slaughter) and Edna (Helen Hedman), who have fled their own home in unexplained, unexamined terror.
The nameless cloud of fear that permeates this house lends itself easily to metaphor, whether one sees it as the "cold war" of the 1960s, the terror attacks that inaugurated this century, or the current economic breakdown that has infiltrated -- and destroyed -- many formerly comfortable lives. (Indeed, Albee has removed a mocking reference to the stock market crashing, fearing it would generate inappropriate laughs.)
But for the play to succeed as more than metaphor requires top-notch acting. Fortunately, Chalfant and Beaver provide searing portraits of people who have allowed their inner lives and their relationship to become desiccated. Beaver exudes an air of languid resignation, which contrasts neatly against Chalfant, whose Agnes is a woman whose regal bearing does not completely hide her fraying sense of emotional security, even as she fires off one pithy aphorism after another. MacKinnon wisely gives these two veterans the space they need to robustly explore their characters' self-imposed limitations and regrets.
That's a daunting task when a character as colorful and caustic as the inebriated Claire shares the stage, and McLaughlin is certainly vibrant in the role, while never crossing the line into comic caricature. Because Henry and Edna lack any sense of self-awareness, they are also apt to generate laughter; but some of those chuckles come because Hedman and Slaughter occasionally play the frightened friends as excessively deadpan and clueless.