Arts & Events

Theatre Review: Eye from the Aisle: A DELICATE BALANCE by Edward Albee--if your hair is gray, do not hesitate to get a ticket while they last.

by John A. McMullen II
Monday September 19, 2011 - 10:04:00 AM
Ken Grantham as Tobias and Jamie Jones as Claire.
David Allen
Ken Grantham as Tobias and Jamie Jones as Claire.

The Aurora Theatre, in its commitment to a theatre of ideas and the eloquence in drama that explores them, has selected A DELICATE BALANCE by Edward Albee.  

When we pass sixty years, the darkness we always sensed was there begins to loom larger. Since Shakespeare, Edward Albee seems to best plumb the human condition and that particular darkness as we enter the twilight. The Aurora knows its audience: 

I counted only half a dozen attendees under 50 years old. Written 45 years ago, the play is perhaps more relevant today as Boomers enter their seniority. 

As in all his plays, Albee creates characters who can believably articulate our complexity with an enthralling fugue of words.  

Director Tom Ross has convened a coterie of the better actors in our midst to give life to this soul-stirring drama. He guides them through the changing rhythms of the play masterfully, and his staging and the actors’ superb techniques aid us in the challenge to keep up with the onslaught of ideas and emotions. 

As the web of relationships is spun out for us and sorted out by the characters, there are quips that in the writing and the delivery bring seizures of honest laughter from the audience. The humor is witty, insightful, and a relief from the electric tension and internal upheavals we go through with our new-found acquaintances.  

It’s about those upper-class folks who have servants and display half a wall devoted to decanted booze and lovely glasses. They drink a lot. There is the abiding metaphor that they let they their bottled-up spirits flow free. (For good reason was the original drama done to honor the great Greek god of getting drunk.) 

Tobias and Agnes, the householders, begin the tale. Wife Agnes (Kimberly King) is one of those people who perform for you rather than converse with you, but her rants are so eloquent, her diction and inflection so perfect, that one can only play the straight man and protect oneself against her assaults, as we sense stolid husband Tobias (Ken Grantham) has done for years. Agnes’s introductory monologue is about her concern of devolving into madness; with synapses that fire that rapidly, one can see how the cerebral machinery could get overloaded and collapse.  

Enter her live-in dipsomaniac sister, Claire (Jamie Jones), her opposite: easy-going, sprawling on the floor and talking casually of sex in summers past, she has the same articulation genes as Sis, but without the stick up her ass, and functions as the outsider, giving a play-by-play philosophical and psychological deconstruction of the motives and actions of the other characters—while continuously deceiving herself. 

The news is that the domestic equation will soon be unbalanced by the return of thirty-something daughter Julia seeking refuge from her fourth failed marriage. 

Then the trademark Albee strangeness is introduced. Long-time friends (Anne Darragh and Charles Dean) stop by for an unusual, unannounced visit. The drawing room drama mode is broken with their tearful, fearful breakdown. 

After intermission number one, the action takes off with the advent of Julia (Carrie Paff) with the eruptions that children and parents bring out in one another.  

The convention of two intermissions is respected. Nobody left. Due to the intensity, one is moved to duck across the Addison to the Revival for a quick top-shelf Bourbon then rush back for more.  

There is something special about this contingent of actors who have spent a lifetime mastering their craft and have acted together. In ensemble and individual performance, this all-Equity cast is as professional and near perfect as I can imagine in casting and ability. (For those not familiar with my reviews, I always find some fault, but not here.) 

Their environment is appealing and believable in the set by Richard Olmsted, a fellow Carnegie Mellon alum who heads the tech theatre department at CSU East Bay and often designs at Aurora. 

As you walk to your seat, you have the urge to plop into the comfortable leather chair onstage. It is an arrangement for conversation without a television in sight. I’ve been in homes like this and the life of the mind is their boon and their bane. Those who think too much are dangerous—mainly to themselves. As Agnes comments, “We all manufacture our own despair.” The furniture is rich, well-used and muted in color, with a raised level at the top of the stage with a bookcase of colorful spines and designed wallpaper against a bay window; that window looks out on an autumnal tree, the lighting on which tells us the season and time of day seasonal as well as the emotional temperature change inside. 

The subtle colors and fabrics of the costumes by Callie Floor enhance our visual enjoyment, are just right for their class, character and status, and invite us to imagine ourselves in the clothing.  

Inside Skinny: Mr. Albee attended the opening. After the play, one of the actors regaled me with a story of Albee interrupting the conversation at the reception with an inspiration: “I want to change a line! Have Tobias say, “The Republicans are being ‘brutal.’“ Albee is known for his abiding enmity of the GOP.  

As the press release describes: “Albee’s 25 plays form a body of work that Albee himself describes as ‘an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, and emasculation and vacuity, a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen.’” 

A DELICATE BALANCE originally starred Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, and won the Pulitzer in 1967, as well as the Tony for Best Revival in 1996. 

The Aurora production has already been extended through October 16 which indicates a sell-out.  

It is one of those theatre experiences we always hope for and too seldom get; though the Aurora has delivered much more often than not in their twenty years. This is one will be remembered, and it has my unqualified recommendation. 

A Delicate Balanceby Edward Albee 

At the Aurora Theatre Company  

Through October 16 

2081 Addison St., Berkeley 510.843.4822  

Direction by Tom Ross, set design by Richard Olmsted, lighting design by Kurt Landisman, costume design by Callie Floor, properties by Mia Baxter & Seren Helday, sound Design by Chris Houston, stage management by Susan M. Reamy 

WITH:Anne Darragh, Charles Dean, Ken Grantham, Jamie Jones, Kimberly King, Carrie Paff