Lives Out of Balance -- Teetering on the Edge

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There is a theory that great writers lean heavily on their unhappy childhoods to create their art, and there are some notable examples that prove the rule. Stephen King’s early years make his novels look like a picnic in the park. Certainly Eugene O’Neill’s fraught family dynamics led to his greatest work; A Long Day’s Journey into Night. Tracy Letts has admitted that he based much of the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play August: Osage County on his own childhood memories. And Edward Albee revealed that several of the characters in A Delicate Balance are based on members of his adopted family. They’ve each done us a great service in allowing us to be voyeurs in their miserable homes, instead of asking us to join them for dinner. To peek into the manipulations and machinations at work in the Albee household, see Strollers Theatre’s well constructed A Delicate Balance, on the Evjue Stage in the Bartell, through September 30th.

As the play opens, Agnes (an uptight and fed up Judy Kimball) launches into a monologue, pondering if she might lose her mind one day, and then wondering if that might not be so bad. Her largely good natured husband Tobias (Carl Cawthorne) listens perfunctorily as he reads the paper and pours himself a drink.

Then Claire enters, the witty and outspoken, alcoholic sister. Played by Rebecca Raether, she is a perennial bright spot in a dark story. Raether wryly breaks the tension and steals focus in almost every scene, covering up her character’s misery with a laugh, or an impromptu song on the accordion. Cast as the ungrateful, irresponsible girl with lots of promise who came to a bad end, she mocks her moralistic sister Agnes and admits that she’s made many poor decisions — quitting AA, jeopardizing her health with a steady stream of liquor, and sleeping with other women’s husbands. The get-along, go-along Tobias asks her to be good, while fixing her another martini.

Finally Julia returns home after another marriage gone awry and it’s the last thing anyone in the family wants to deal with. And no wonder. The moping and sullen daughter, played with anger and entitlement by Carrie Sweet, has made one bad match after another and literally comes crying home to her mother each time, whining about her “rights” instead of attempting to act like an adult. Tobias half-heartedly offers to talk to the husband du jour, but no one believes it will help.

That’s a houseful, with angst aplenty. But then Harry and Edna come knocking, looking absolutely terrified. The couple’s best friends (a milquetoast Jim Chiolino and feisty Patricia Kugler Whitely) announce that they are scared to be in their home so they came over — not just to be soothed, but to stay. When they actually move in, angst meets absurdity, and that eventually uncovers truth. Like any Albee play, there is also quite a bit of drinking involved.

While Julia stomps and pouts about being put out of her bedroom, Agnes fumes that she can’t be the “fulcrum,” manufacturing balance when her whole house is filled with disorder that she views as disease. Harry and Edna bring in more suitcases and lecture the others like they own the place, while Claire fixes herself another drink and revels in watching others’ lives unravel from the sidelines. This allows the most unlikely of protagonists to appear: Tobias.

His journey, imbued with subtlety and substance by Cawthorne, begins with a detachment and general disdain for his family (feelings that they share) and ends with an existential questioning of the nature of love. Shouldn’t his house be a place for people to weather storms – real or imagined? Shouldn’t we be willing to give love without an expectation of receiving the same in kind? Isn’t that what our most important relationships deserve?

It’s a baffling, but satisfying conclusion to a story that has focused on too many characters abandoning each other when times got tough, finding temporary solace in the arms of the wrong person, and focusing only on their own needs without regard to anyone else. And Cawthorne’s performance helps this moment of truth soar, instead of ringing hollow.

On an emotional level, this production is an accomplishment. On technical level, it deserves better stagecraft. Long blackouts between scenes grind the storytelling to a halt and a lack of masking lets the audience clearly see all the actors enter and leave the theater when they are supposed to be safely offstage. It’s clunky and distracting, which is a shame because what’s onstage is really worth our full attention.

(N.B. - This is the full version of the review. A more condensed piece will be in print and online in Isthmus.)