Albee at MRT
The Merrimack Repertory brings in top cast for Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance
By Heidi Masek email@example.com
“Oh Agnes, why don’t you die?”
Claire’s retort to her sister is short and to the point in Edward Albee’s 1966 play A Delicate Balance. Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Mass., held opening night for a production of it Sunday, March 15, just a few days after Albee’s 80th birthday.
Agnes opines about the burden of alcoholics, and assumes that her sister is one. “What I cannot stand is the selfishness! Those of you who want to die ... and take your whole lives doing it,” she says.
Albee won his first of three Pulitzers for the play, and didn’t leave a hero in the bunch in this peek into the lives of a middle-aged Connecticut couple whose home is filling with friends and family on the brink of losing their minds.
Is it impending death, or the feeling of being trapped, or the realization that you are alone and have been, that is making everyone go mad?
Albee is credited with bringing absurdist theater to America with his 1958 play The Zoo Story. His best-known title might be Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Albee creates plenty of questions in this dialogue-based play — like why do Agnes and Tobias house Claire? And when the audience is given partial answers, there are still questions.
The play opens with just Agnes and Tobias enjoying nightcaps, Tobias saying little, Agnes going on in her articulate and cutting manner.
It felt like it could be a painful play to watch until Claire was introduced. She’s Agnes’s opposite, dressed in more of a mod 1960s fashion while Agnes looks like an Agnes. The Claire character provides the entertainment, and while sometimes she works to distract the household from a fight or the truth, other times she can be just as cruel, and with more flourish, as the others. Claire has information she keeps silent — that Tobias and his best friend Harry had affairs with the same girl years ago. Agnes might call it family duty to “take in” alcoholic Claire, but there might be other reasons Claire lives off Tobias’ charity.
Strangely, at the end of the first act, friends Harry and Edna come to the house, uninvited and unannounced, to stay. They are frightened.
By the second act I could believe that Harry was frightened of something, but Edna proved herself a scary dictator in a scene in which she calmly told Agnes and Tobias’ daughter Julia that Edna and Harry had more right to move in to Julia’s childhood room than Julia did.
Julia is “home from the wars,” as Aunt Claire puts it, on divorce number four at age 36. It almost felt like Gloria Biegler was over- dramatizing the role, whining and carrying on, until the evil Edna, played coolly by Jill Tanner, had a line about Julia rising “like a silent film star” to defend her parents’ liquor shelf. Tanner appeared on Broadway in Simon Gray’s Butley with Nathan Lane and in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.
With a full house, Agnes and Tobias are forced to share the same room and bed for the night. Edna and Harry also sleep in separate beds. Harry is played by Ross Bickell, who has appeared in The Drawer Boy at MRT, and his TV work includes appearances on Chappelle’s Show.
The acting, as usual with MRT, was well done. All the actors for this performance have Broadway, film and TV credits. Penny Fuller, who played Claire, appeared in All The President’s Men. Jack Davidson, who played Tobias, and Jennifer Harmon, who played Agnes, both appeared in Albee’s Seascape on Broadway.
While Claire is the appointed alcoholic in the play, every scene involves one or more of the characters’ needing a drink. It’s a good thing the Merrimack Repertory allows patrons to bring wine from the concession stand into the theater; otherwise the audience might get thirsty with all the talk of cognac and martinis.
And while MRT is a great venue, it shares the same building — and the same bathrooms, it turns out — with the Lowell Memorial Auditorium. Intermission collided with that of the “Lord of the Dance” tour visiting March 15. Several MRT patrons who got stuck in restroom lines had to watch the second act from the back.
Merrimack Repertory Theater continues its run of A Delicate Balance at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 4:30 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through April 5, with a closing 2 p.m. performance Sunday, April 6, at 50 East Merrimack St., Lowell, Mass., (978) 654-4678, merrimackrep.org. Ticket costs range from $28 to $56. Student tickets cost $15.