Arts & Events

Theater Review: Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance at the Aurora

By Ken Bullock
Wednesday September 14, 2011 - 10:27:00 AM

"I find most astonishing ... the belief that I may, very easily, as they say, lose my mind one day."

In an upper middle class Connecticut home, circa 1960-something, Agnes, very much in control, gives vent to her carefully delineated fantasy. 

And her husband Tobias, mixing the evening's drinks--an ongoing ritual--at the personal bar upstage, genially (and diplomatically) replies, "We will all go mad before you." 

Before the act is out, in Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, now playing at the Aurora (and extended for a week, through the two performances now scheduled for October 16), that surety will be sorely tested, and tested again and again through the rest of the play.  

The first big test comes when the moderately uneasy domestic threesome of Agnes, Tobias and Agnes' sharp, hard drinking sister Claire--who engages in one of Albee's great hairsplitting speeches, about leaving A. A,, as if testifying before a Congressional subcommittee.: "I never was, and never would be, a alcoholic. Or an. Not even ... What I didn't have in common with them. They were alcoholics. I am a drunk."--are joined by Tobias and Agnes' oft-declared best friends Harry and Edna, who have glimpsed "the terror" while at home, alone together, and move in on their friends without warning ... 

Just as they await the arrival of Julia, Agnes and Tobias' thirty-something daughter, into the wind-up (or the swing) of her third or fourth divorce by rushing home to her somewhat jaded family. 

The conundrums, situational and verbal, continue to tangle up and unravel, while Albee's barbed dialogue chimes in like clockwork: "We become allegorical as we become older, but we hold our individuality so dear"--or: ""We must coexist. This is what we mean by friendship, is it not?" Or: "When the daylight comes and the pressure's on, all the insight won't mean a damn." 

(Maybe most fitting: "There's no place to rest the weary head, or whatever ... ") 

Directed by Aurora artistic director Tom Ross, the cast is a particularly fitting one for this first production of the Berkeley company's 20th season: Kimberly King, the company's original leading lady (in Shaw's Candida) as the seemingly unflappable and commanding Agnes, and King's husband (they were married at the Berkeley City Club in 1993, when the Aurora occupied the room where Central Works now performs) company co-founder Ken Grantham as Tobias, diplomat, go-between (if sometimes behind Agnes' back) and mix--if not toast--master at the family hearth. The other players include Charles Dean as best friend Harry, Anne Darragh as his wife Edna, Carrie Paff as daughter Julia--all three familiar to Aurora Theatre-goers--and Jamie Jones as waspish sister Claire.  

And the cast is unusually good; they suit their respective roles and each other very well, important for a dramaturgically tight play with ricocheting dialogue. 

Opening night proved a great start for Aurora's anniversary season, the actors playing with sensitivity and elan for an audience which included the author, who'd just flown in from New York. 

There's a missing ingredient to the production, however, one the actors try to dub in sometimes, as in Ken Grantham's great "aria" (as a director friend called it), Tobias' effusion to Harry (and the rest, who crowd in towards the end) on friendship and hospitality--theatricality, in the formal sense, a little bit of stylization. The play follows the domestic rites, the liturgy, of the bourgeosie, not their discreet charm, as those solemnities, those vivacious or pro-forma formulas come close to upset, with the threat of emptiness from within, or mutual responsibility and genuine display of affection among each other ...  

More tension that can become free-floating, metaphysical, the atmosphere of a contagion gripping the community, as they keep bringing up the metaphor of the plague. And which could sharpen the satire. There may be--among others--a touch of T. S. Eliot's mordant humor here. (For a different reading of the play, see the 1971 American Film Theatre version, available on Netflix, Tony Richardson directing Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield, Kate Reid, Lee Remick, Joseph Cotten and Betsy Blair.) 

Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison, near Shattuck. $10-$48; discounts available. 843-4822;