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In the House

Everyman Fits Wit, Insight, and Family Drama All Under One Roof in A Delicate Balance

Raise the Roof: Anne Stone and Bill Hamlin pack passive aggressiveness to the rafters.

By John Barry | Posted 11/27/2002

A Delicate Balance

Edward Albee

In the first act of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, an aging Tobias (Bill Hamlin) starts talking about a cat he once had. The cat, for some reason, had stopped loving him. And he became terrified by the fact that, after years of emptying its litter box, the cat didn't really care for him one way or the other. He'd start petting it furiously, grabbing it and putting it on his lap, but the cat wouldn't even purr. Then he had it put to sleep.

A Delicate Balance starts long after its characters have stopped purring to one another. Tobias and Agnes are a middle-aged, upper-middle-class couple. Agnes is the Alpha in the house; Tobias is a heavy-drinking retiree who spends a lot of his time at the club. But the balance starts tipping as their house begins to fill up with friends and relatives. Their best friends, Harry and Edna, unilaterally decide to move in after being spooked by their own house. Tobias and Agnes' 36-year-old daughter, Julia, meanwhile, returns home on the verge of a fourth divorce. And Agnes' sister Claire, a self-proclaimed alcoholic, is raising general havoc. All the ingredients for disaster are there; you just wait for it.

After 40 years, Albee's mantra about the vacuity of middle-class America can get a little tiresome. But what remains fascinating about this play is the precarious, edgy relationships that grow between people who are caught in the same trap: In a house with too few rooms, everyone's trying to make sure they don't get left out in the cold. The daughter Julia is battling to reclaim her bedroom. Agnes and Harry try to become members of the family. Tobias is gripped with the emptiness he finds at the end of the road. And Agnes is worried about losing her mind. They're all under the same roof now, and there are too many of them. So what do they do now?

As is the trademark in all of Albee's plays, there's very little movement in Balance, and at points in this production, the effect can be a little paralyzing. The characters sit and stand around, listening to the horrifying pulse of some invisible telltale heart, and, at increasingly frequent intervals, they wig out. Waiting for that emotional wave to crest requires a little patience. At the beginning, the characters (and the audience) are somewhat bored with one another; but at the end, they're hanging on each other's every word. When the play is most successful, and the acting is at its best, this transformation is gripping.

The self-described "ruler of the roost" of Balance is Agnes (Anne Stone), and in some ways, hers is the most difficult role. She has to hold things together while everyone else goes off the edge. As Agnes' sister Claire, Rosemary Knower sits on the sidelines, nudging characters over the precipice. Knower's performance is delightfully off-balance while not seeming manic. And Bill Hamlin's Tobias is a middle-class American King Lear. Hamlin lends him an almost tragic charisma as, over the course of the play, he gives up his house and his status, and finally realizes that he's got nothing left. He's not sure what he had to begin with, but--in this play's most gripping and heartbreaking moment--he tries desperately to find some sort of bond with other characters in the same position.

Deborah Hazlett gives the play a badly needed high-energy performance as a daughter who, even after four marriages, can't stay away from her home. Julia's gradual regression into childhood after finding a strange couple occupying her bedroom is particularly fascinating. Harry (Richard Pilcher) and Edna (Judy Simmons), meanwhile, appear to regain their composure over the course of one night. That transformation is almost too sudden to be believable and, by the end, it's too difficult to put a finger on this enigmatic couple.

With largely immobile characters headed toward an obvious apocalypse, A Delicate Balance runs the risk of mixing gray intervals of social comedy with sudden bursts of absurd rants. The Everyman's accomplished actors avoid this by allowing the wave of terror to build gradually. There's over-the-top humor and plenty of solo soul-bearing, but throughout, you get the sense that the most dramatic moment took place long ago, when the purring stopped.

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