By Edward Albee
Directed by Diana Leblanc
A Soulpepper Production at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts
Opened January 18, 2018
Edward Albee’s comic and dramatic varnish can often camouflage the less than firm underpinnings of some of his plays. Opening in a cozy living-room of a suburban home, where Agnes, smugly serene and imperious wife of Tobias, a man cocooned in his own gentle concentration and deference, sets a tone of mandarin elegance very reminiscent to that of a Henry James character, A Delicate Balance gleams with satiric wit. The middle-aged couple are deep into their ritual of evening drinks and conversation, dominated, of course, by Agnes, who claims to be astonished by what is unfolding within her—a feeling of encroaching madness as “a gentle loosening of the moorings,” a sense of being adrift, a stranger in the world. Tobias’s initial response is a WASPish joke, in the sense of gentle irony, well-mannered and almost a throwaway before anisette or some cordial. But Albee is merely playing a game of satire, making sure that there is as yet no crack in a foundation he wishes to shake to its core in due course. It is evident that the couple are no longer sexually intimate with each other, one reason being Tobias’s fling with Claire, Agnes’s alcoholic sister, who has moved in with them, and who delights in boosting Tobias while embarrassing Agnes. And so, the ritual turns into something else.
There is talk about infidelity, frigidity, a lost child (the couple’s only son who died young), and the collapse of the fourth marriage of Julia (the couple’s daughter), who returns home quite desperate and unhappy at not having merely lost yet another husband but her own room as well in the family home. Things go from bad to eerie, with yet another desperate arrival—that of best friends, Edna and Harry, who seem terrorized by something unnamed. Soon, the new arrivants seem to be taking over the home with a sense of entitlement, and new sparks fly as the metaphorical ground shifts. Agnes drops her scorn and arrogance in moments of genuine bafflement. Tobias has a difficult time maintaining his rectitude. Harry remains frozen in terror. Julia goes to tear-streaked, rage-inflected pieces. Claire, alcohol-fuelled, sees reality the clearest, justifying her emblematic name. The play moves into existential horror. The mood is one of plague, disease, distemper. And huge cracks appear in characters’ composure, igniting explosions of anger, dismay, bafflement.
But this is where Albee turns from gleaming, witty dramatist to pretentious metaphysician or allegorist. The terror is never specifically identified, though it is probably a combination of fear of impending death and of a generalized existential need to feel comforted and wanted. Indeed, Albee crystallizes this existential truth with black humour in the final act, where it becomes abundantly clear what each character lacks in life. The truth of each character is forced out, and what first seemed like little holes or cracks are magnified into something psychologically cavernous.
In short, A Delicate Balance attempts its own balancing act of anomalous feelings and actions, rhetoric and genre, and it is really a landscape of hills and caves rather than one of gentle slopes and plains. Diana Leblanc’s production, however, is eerily flat and often monotonous, though intelligent. Hampered by the configuration of a playing area set between two sides of an audience, Astrid Janson offers a tidy carpeted living room with sideboard, sofas, and crystal, but even Andre de Toit’s attempts at mood lighting (sometimes abrupt) do not create a sense of enveloping existential danger. Patrick Clark’s costumes are serviceable, as is John Gzowski’s sound design. The acting is generally competent, but several of the performances seem superficial and not especially vivid or fully fleshed. Derek Boyes and Kyra Harper, for example, are fine as the friends with a sense of entitlement, but they never seem credibly terrified by anything existential. They seem to be having a bad day rather than being shaken to the core by an unfulfilled need. Laura Condlln gets close to being over the top but manages to depict Julia’s spoiled brat neediness and frustration vividly. In what is often the showiest role, Brenda Robins is more of an epigrammatic joker than soul-shaken alcoholic. The comic lines come forth but there is no sense of the depth and horror of disease. As gentle but quietly frustrated Tobias, Oliver Dennis explodes more frequently than he should so that when the ultimate explosion is required as he reveals what he has been disguising for so long, he seems to be merely repeating the same anger at what had gone before. On the other hand, Nancy Palk is correctly in character as Agnes: imperious, serene as she lobs nasty verbal grenades at Claire, perplexed at the invading friends, and over-compensating for humiliations, but the degree of radiance is somewhat lower than it should be because the general tone of the production is genteel and conversational. The cast and director seem to have forgotten that all is not naturalism in Albee. I would have liked a disturbing hill or threatening cavern or two to figure more prominently in a rolling plain.