A regal middle-aged woman with perfectly coiffed hair, Agnes sits bemusedly a couch, her head resting on one hand. Everything about her has the appearance of utter calm: her crossed legs, her ladylike posture and even the demure curve of her smile. But as she sits onstage, wondering aloud about the possibility of waking up one day and losing her mind — the audience begins to get the sneaking suspicion that she’s already lost it.
Such is the opening scene of Aurora Theatre’s latest production, a neat and effortlessly strange staging of Edward Albee’s 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “A Delicate Balance.” The play takes place in the living room of an aging upper middle class couple, Agnes and Tobias (Kimberly King and Ken Grantham). The two aren’t quite empty-nesters: Agnes’ sarcastic and alcoholic sister Claire, seemingly unable to support herself, lives with the couple. Adding to the circus, Agnes receives a call from their grown daughter Julia announcing that she is coming home yet again, after her fourth failed marriage. The scales are tipped further when close friends Harry and Edna arrive at their doorstep. Fleeing some inexplicable terror (visions of mortality? loneliness? only Albee knows, presumably), they expect to be allowed to stay with beloved Tobias and Agnes. Decorum, as you can imagine, is quick to dissolve in such tense company. That and an excessive store of parlor-room alcohol.
The whole situation is entirely absurd, as it’s meant to be, but the frightening thing about this production is that it is not at all surreal.
Aurora seems to be on a thematic kick. They like to choose plays written sometime circa 50 years ago and make them relevant — and they’re doing a damn good job of it, “A Delicate Balance” being no exception. Though I suppose it’s not hard to make someone as clever as Edward Albee speak through the ages, but Aurora’s rendition is stunning nonetheless.
One of Albee’s more notable ruses in “Balance” is to impart the most sober of lines of the play to the drunk. Jamie Jones’ Claire is brash, dissonant and outright rude. Claire is the naked bulb in Agnes’ otherwise well maintained living room, casting an unflattering light on the other characters. In her swarthy manner, Claire is sharp enough to wade through the delusion, but not capable enough to escape it.
As the action unfolds and Julia (a somewhat overwrought Carrie Paff) returns home to find her precious room filled with a whole lotta Harry and Edna. The “Balance” is upset and relationships are tested, often revealing themselves to be void of the love and respect that society and culture says they should entail. Let the hysterics ensue.
Aurora’s Alafi Auditorium is ideal. Not too large nor too small, the stage is surrounded on three sides, amphitheater-style by the audience. Seeing the production is like being a fly on the wall in the living room. The vantage point really does justice to the direction, facing and not facing, revealing how they are spread out, like pieces on a chessboard. The space is simultaneously open and stifling, and the beautiful living room set is transformed into a claustrophobic inner space.
This play is an intriguing mix of the believable and the unbelievable, of painfully unemotional men and women on the verge of insanity, and it is a good choice for Aurora. In the hands of Director Tom Ross and the talented cast, the “Delicate Balance” that was perturbed proves to be a more stable equilibrium than we expect — and life returns, somewhat tragically, to its normal state of sordid delusion.