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.

Echo Theatre has lassoed a cast of dependable Dallas actors for this tale of three women who hold a private garden party to protest an all-male dinner discussion about art by boho men. Director and Echo co-founder Pam Myers-Morgan, who previously helmed another delicious but denser historical saga of womanly woe and whimsy in Susan Sontag's Alice in Bed for Wingspan Theatre, again shows an eye for alternating drama and comedy. When a moment of confession or confrontation might tempt an actor to trudge through the scene, Myers-Morgan urges them to tread lighter along that path.

The play begins with a nightmare of fire and screaming and ends with a near-tableau at a painter's easel. These two extremes might describe the bipolar state of our heroine, Clovis (Suzy Blaylock), a woman recently out of an institution who rejected, in one flamboyant ritual, a promising career as a painter. She is genuinely cared for, and sometimes condescended to, by her husband, Victor (Chamblee Ferguson), who, by the standards of most violently territorial "No Girls Allowed" male painters, is a most decent and patient fellow. He's also got something of a traditionally feminine ear for love talk: He writes throbbing, florid love letters and signs them "The Centaur in the Garden." He even ghostwrites an erotic reminiscence by their maid, Dolores (Kateri Cale), who has, by her own admission, loved many men and stayed with them until they abandoned her.

When Victor plans a dinner party of influential male painters, he excludes his wife and all other artistic women from the table. The bicycle-borne arrival of Clovis' headstrong intellectual friend Pola (Linda Marie Ford) ups the tension and completes a trio that includes Clovis, who is frightened of but forlorn about her past painting career, and the maid Dolores, whose life as a professional domestic seemingly contradicts the series of heartbreaks she's suffered on the private domestic front.

Playwright Heather McDonald has said she wrote Dream of a Common Language when a museum exhibit detailed a men-only dinner that helped inspire the paintings. She had already, in the course of her own art studies, discovered a number of female artists whose remarkable work had slipped through art-history books. Some people wary of the "F" word might think McDonald has jumped back almost 125 years to view women's roles in America as an excuse to revive doctrinaire feminist outrage. Still, she does have two things on her side: the fact that women, to this day, have a suspiciously tiny presence in the sacred canon of Western painting, and the playwright's own willingness to temper this with the lonely voices of women who've put art first, relationships second. Dream of a Common Language doesn't affirm, assuage, or argue about women's subjugation as artists--it's far more concerned with the issue of whether men and women do indeed create utterly different art, and what that means when the two sensibilities (real or perceived) collide.

Echo Theatre offers Dallas audiences a series of engaging performances on the deck of their maiden voyage. Echo co-founder Linda Marie Ford is a bespectacled, sardonic cocktail of longing and agitation as Pola, a woman who wonders whether men paint with their penis, yet longs for a man who'll whisper to her in bed. Kateri Cale finally gets a juicy role after a series of cameos and supporting roles in recent productions; she is elegantly earthy as the maid, so good you're willing to forgive the suspicion that the playwright was being a bit optimistic when she had this servant accepted so readily into the company of two privileged, educated women in 1874. Chamblee Ferguson, as the husband who travels through concern and confusion to make a small but symbolically enormous sacrifice for his wife, wears tender befuddlement articulately well.

Echo co-founder Suzy Blaylock as the frustrated painter is good, but her role is blurry, more a pitstop for free-floating female angst about blocked creativity than a recognizable person. She displays some very irrational behavior and has been conceived with a quaint sheen of insanity reminiscent of the female characters of Williams or O'Neill. It's not a fatal misstep--the dialogue is so sharp, you only realize how less defined she is when you ponder it afterward. But the character does spotlight a foible that Echo Theatre, which declares itself dedicated to producing women's voices, might become aware of on its journey: Don't become so concerned with "the experience of women" that you forget the compelling, contradictory, heartfelt story of one woman.

Dream of a Common Language runs through August 29. Call 824-7169.

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