In the intriguing but imperfect production at 7 Stages, theater founders Del Hamilton and Faye Allen portray the central married couple Tobias and Agnes, who initially come across like a contented version of Woolf's bickering George and Martha. The first of the play's three acts both establishes their country club complacency and undermines it with the problems of their relatives.
Sharing their roof is Agnes' bitterly witty sister Claire (Carolyn Cook), a self-described drunk who displays equal parts shame and defiance. In the first act, the couple also learn that their troubled daughter Julia (Maia Knispel) wishes to separate from her fourth husband and return to the bosom of her family.
The play takes its strangest turn with an uninvited visit from best friends Harry and Edna (Shawn Shepard and Carol Mitchell-Leon). Gradually Harry and Edna explain that a terrible, nameless fear drove them from their house, and they expect shelter from Tobias and Agnes, whose home becomes overrun with wounded souls vying for attention.
A Delicate Balance unfolds like a theatrical exploration of the oft-quoted exchange in Robert Frost's "Death of a Hired Man" when the husband says, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in," and his wife replies, "I should have called it something you somehow haven't to deserve." In Balance, Tobias has the more accommodating view, but the debate has similar implications: Who has the greater right to comfort, their problem child or their longtime pals? Does Tobias and Agnes' love for others have limits -- and if so, what does that say about their character?
Branded with their inexplicable dread, Harry and Edna should strike us as an otherwise normal couple, but in Joseph Chaikin's production, they're each eccentrically presented. Carol Mitchell-Leon at times has a natural, upper-middle-class poise, but she frequently displays an ethereal manner with staring, almost glazed eyes. Shawn Shepard, though credibly chummy and mellow, simply seems too young to play a contemporary of Tobias, and the actor's throaty delivery sounds forced.
Likewise, Maia Knispel seems significantly younger than Julia's stated age of 36, although the character is so sullen and immature that the difference is hard to notice. Knispel gives Julia appropriately high levels of indignation, especially when she finds that her old room has become "Harry and Edna's room."
Agnes frequently speaks in mannered circumlocutions, and Faye Allen has a hard time making them sound like natural speech, especially since the other roles have more conventional diction. But Allen is more comfortable when leveling harsh criticisms at Julia or Claire, her face a mask of disapproval.
Hamilton makes an ideal Tobias, a magnanimous business man who may have stepped from the pages of a John Cheever story. He endearingly interrupts himself while telling the story of a pet cat who stopped liking him, then brings us up short when the tale takes an ugly turn. Perhaps his final speech (which Albee calls an "aria" in his stage directions) gets a bit overheated, but the intensity reflects Tobias' long-delayed awareness of the flaws in his marriage.
Hamilton and Allen's interplay at first seems like a model of domestic bliss, but as we learn more details of Tobias and Agnes' life together -- they don't sleep in the same room, one cheated on the other in the past -- we realize that they have deep fissures between them that the actors subtly conveyed all along. The household's perpetual Happy Hour has darker implications, as does Tobias' comfort level with Claire, who certainly proves to be the life of the party.
Michael Heil's living room set is essentially "normal" and tastefully furnished, but Jessica Coale's stark lighting and the almost painful clarity of the sound design exaggerate the realism. During 7 Stages' A Delicate Balance, we alternate between empathy and mystification while watching the conflicts in that deceptively bourgeois room. Some of the characters' anxieties and self-destructive acts strike us as rather alien, but others would seem right at home anywhere. And it's with those that the play still has the power to scare us.
A Delicate Balance plays through June 9 at 7 Stages, 1105 Euclid Ave. Wed.-Thurs. at 7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m. Sun. at 5 p.m. $20. 404-523-7647.
Little harsh, in'it?
Oh that's right...I DID say enjoy yourself.
Go to hell Kombo!
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
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