Balancing act

11th Street Theatre walks a high wire over Edward Albee's domestic disturbance

Edward Albee's most famous play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, so scandalized American theatergoers when it was produced in New York in 1962 that no Pulitzer Prize for drama was awarded that year because the committee was passionately polarized over the play, or so the legend goes. The ever cautious Pulitzer waited through two other plays (his adaptation of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and the densely philosophical Tiny Alice) before finally rewarding Albee with the first of his three medals for A Delicate Balance (1967), an outwardly more polite depiction of domestic discord.

Virginia Woolf is an emotive showboat compared to the quieter rowboat of A Delicate Balance, but it's precisely the effort by characters from the latter to stay afloat, the modest and controlled struggle to stay dry against increasingly choppy waters, that makes this the more tragic of the two. As performed in a taut but cumulatively emotional production by 11th Street Theatre Project, most of the characters are too terrified to move suddenly in any direction for fear of capsizing.

At heart, A Delicate Balance is a comedy, which is true of most of Albee's plays (including Virginia Woolf). But there are fewer tears to smile through in this prickly chamber sextet in which a privileged, comatosely comfortable married couple in late middle age find themselves juggling the wife's alcoholic sister; a grown daughter who can't (and maybe shouldn't) commit to marriage; and an equally comfortable, privileged married couple--peers and longtime friends--who are rendered homeless by a fear they cannot name. Director Lisa Cotie doesn't stop her actors from the occasional outburst when the time is right (and as the tension of this domestic overload builds, it becomes more and more right). But this is a play of educated characters who, for the most part, are desperate to intellectualize the pain in their lives, more content to describe their sorrow than feel it.

Under normal circumstances, smugly temperate Agnes and Tobias (Jeanne Everton and H. Frances Fusilier) should be prepared for disruptions from their distraught daughter Julia (Jeannette Chivis), who has come home again because of battles with her fourth husband, and from Agnes' sister Claire (Angela Wilson), a caustic dipsomaniac who has seemingly dedicated her unmarried adult life to embarrassing and challenging Agnes. Julia and Claire are imbalances by now, predictable to Agnes and Tobias, but these burdens become strangely heavier when unexpected new dependents, Harry and Edna (Kevin Keating and Kimberlyn Crowe), who are as accomplished and secure as their fellow country-clubbers, come knocking on their comrades' door trembling with terror over "nothing."

The mystery over what has frightened Harry and Edna is the quixotic moral lesson at the heart of A Delicate Balance--the idea that all the proper life decisions, if made against risk and turmoil and passion, can suddenly reveal that the essence of life itself has been averted. The tricky catalyst in this play--what propels characters away from and toward each other--is this "nothing," this emptiness, what these characters haven't done and said in their lives so far. This glaring lack is what has driven Harry and Edna from their plush nest, and what drives Agnes and Tobias to choose between their own tumultuous blood relations (sister Claire and daughter Julia) and the friends whose lives are more immediately recognizable to them.

This phantom dramatic core, plus the emotional suppression of most of the characters that necessarily feeds it, makes A Delicate Balance a very challenging theatrical experience, even on the best of terms. Luckily, the 11th Street cast sets those terms with cogent, restrained, and moving performances. Jeanne Everton and H. Frances Fusilier are the reactors to this descent of messy uncertainty on a life they thought they controlled: together, they establish a wry and poignant mood. Angela Wilson and Jeannette Chivis are the gadflies whose personal crises wind up revealing as much about their family's weakness as about their own. Both actors nicely underplay their turmoil to serve the larger revelation. Kevin Keating and Kimberlyn Crowe provide the right trembling confusion in admitting their own sudden need, and Crowe exerts chilling and memorable authority when crossed by Chivis.

Though it's frequently funny, there is a deep sadness to A Delicate Balance that doesn't dawn on you until the play's final moments. The melancholy pleasure of this talky character study is grabbing the lifeline these people throw at you with their dialogue, then sinking alongside them with the realization that words alone can't save you from the despair of an empty heart.

A Delicate Balance runs through August 29. Call 522-PLAY.

Role play
When you whittle down the flowery musings among friends about artistic and gender frustrations in Heather McDonald's Dream of a Common Language, you're left with one question: Is the human soul genderless? Although creative expression is certainly influenced by gender, is a particular painting slave to its artist's sex?

Delivered in a buoyant, evocative debut production by a newborn company called Echo Theatre, Dream of a Common Language poses this question in the context of 19th-century painting and then, gloriously, presents only eloquent perspectives, not political answers. Those of us who believe that men and women are, in fact, far more alike than they are different, and those who stare at a much-loved heterosexual partner and see a Martian/Venusian are allowed only to ponder, through dialogue that can be both astringently observant and lush. We are neither affirmed nor denied, but we are made aware that ambivalence often offers the quieter, more glowing truth of mystery.

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