Wordplay, cruelty and a touch of the absurd in Albee’s “A Delicate Balance”
Accusations fly under a veneer of propriety. Cruel truths are dished with a refined “darling” attached. This well-appointed drawing room is a war zone, where realism and the absurd meet amid recriminations fueled by alcohol. Clearly, we’re in Edward Albee country.
In Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Delicate Balance,” directed by Warren Sherrill at The Edge Theatre, the characters battle complicated histories and each other. Through it all they underscore the disconnects in human relationships.
An unexplained loss at the heart of the story teases the au-
dience. Wordplay substitutes for action. Agnes (Martha Harmon Pardee), the lady of the house, is all social graces, masking a multitude of secrets and disappointments. Agnes fears she may be losing her mind.
Her innocuous husband Tobias (Kevin Hart), merely listens and pours cocktails. Agnes’ unmarried sister Claire (Emma Messenger) has recently resumed drinking, which brings out the bombast and the ugly secrets. Julia (Maggy Stacy), the often-divorced daughter of Agnes and Tobias, has returned to the nest. Again.
A strain of self-loathing runs through each of them. This species of modern, country-clubgoing American WASP is expert at avoiding unpleasantness. Everything should be smooth, everyone presentable. Mix another perfect martini.
The crazy is ratcheted to 11 when the couple’s friends Edna (Abby Apple Boes) and Harry (Steve Emily) show up seeking sanctuary from their horrific fear — an unspecified free-floating anxiety. “We were frightened and there was nothing,” they explain.
Claire calls out the lies, Julia throws a bratty tantrum, and the frightened friends move in. Meanwhile, a brittle Agnes insists that all remain placid, perhaps as placid as the neutral tones of Edna and Harry’s wardrobes.
In a particularly chilling monologue, Tobias discloses that he put down a pet cat years earlier because he felt judged by her. “She didn’t like me anymore, it was that simple.” He wants his current pets, residents of his home, to behave nicely. Pour another drink and dodge.
The play, written in 1966, is truly timeless (the script describes the setting as “Then or Now.”) Albee anticipated the angst of what today are called boomerang children, and the nameless terror exhibited by Harry and Edna has only grown in relevance. The work has aged as well as the scotch.
Sherrill makes the most of the intimate theater; the bar is practically in the front row. His direction has enabled a remarkable cast to gel, giving the production power. No single performance outshines the others. Pardee is perfectly pinched and formal, refined and repressed as Agnes, precariously holding things together as the self-declared “fulcrum” of the group.
Kevin Hart is terrific as Tobias, the long-suffering gentleman who has been sleeping apart from his wife since their son’s death. Hart plays him as lost, quietly seething and trying to understand.
The formidable Messenger brings perfect comic timing to her sly zingers. Stacy rages and embodies the overgrown brat Julia. And Boes and Emily physically evince the profound fear that drives Edna and Harry from their home.
The characters are armed with tragic memories and brutal rebukes, which they hope to repress via the booze. The release of those memories, over a three-hour run time (including one intermission) makes for a wonderfully bumpy night.
From left, Martha Harmon Pardee, Abby Apple Boes, Steve Emily and Emma Messenger in “A Delicate Balance” at The Edge Theatre.