Have you ever had unexpected house guests show up and decide to start living with you in definitely? If so, you must be familiar with the sheer terror of such a scenario as seen in South of Broadway’s latest production A Delicate Balance. The play, by Edward Albee, features strong performances by a cast who manage to make complex relationships intriguing.
Though A Delicate Balance premiered on Broadway nearly half a century ago, it still speaks to audiences today. Taking place in 1966, a year that saw such albums as Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and the Beatles’ Revolver, the play arises from an era of significant cultural change and reflects a period of upheaval from traditional gender roles to divorce.
Taking place over the course of one weekend, the play is set in Agnes (played by Lynda Harvey-Carter) and Tobias’s (Daniel Hall Kuhn) elaborate living room. The dialogue between the two immediately sets a tone that the household is in order — though a very precarious order. The audience soon learns some of the strains on their relationship, including the fact that Agnes’s alcoholic sister Claire lives with them. Making things harder, Julia, the daughter of Agnes and Tobias, has now separated from her fourth husband and is moving back in the next day.
The play takes quite a turn when friends of Agnes and Tobias, Harry and Edna, drop in unexpectedly. Their reasoning for doing so is never fully explained — instead the cause is a nameless “terror” at their own house. Unwilling to return home, Harry and Edna move into Agnes and Tobias’s already crowded household, utterly oblivious to having never been granted permission. Agnes puts them up in her daughter Julia’s room who isn’t the slight bit pleased with her new roomies.
With so many strains on what was a seemingly harmonious household, Agnes and Tobias must decide whether to expel their onerous house guests — who happen to be their friends of over four decades. In laboring over this choice, they confront their own relationship — one that has seen many figurative walls built between them in order to preserve their own balance of desires and fears. After years of developing a household equilibrium — such as sleeping in separate rooms after their young son died — the balance is forcefully confronted by allowing others into their house.
For an audience to believe in such a play, the capabilities of the cast is tantamount. South of Broadway does well in creating relatable yet nuanced characters, and the actresses and actors in this production achieve that. Harvey-Carter and Kuhn stand out, especially nearing the climax of the play as they try to resolve the stressful situation in which they find themselves. Throughout A Delicate Balance, their performances balance a certain rigidity necessary to “maintain shape,” to borrow a phrase from Agnes, with moments of impassioned outbursts as they scrutinize their own relationship.
Like these actors, Linda Esposito does a wonderful job as Claire, the alcoholic sister of Agnes. Though she is a major character and vividly describes how she has dealt with her drinking habits, she also provides a bit of comic relief, helping to diffuse the tension in some of the scenes. For instance, in the second act Claire plays much of one scene with an accordion strapped to her chest, punching out harsh chords after specific lines. Albee uses this character much like a Shakespearean fool, introducing levity while providing insightful commentary on other characters.
Meanwhile, Allison Arvay’s portrayal of Julia provides a substantial foil to her mother’s more reserved demeanor. Demanding that Harry and Edna leave, Julia’s dramatic eruptions cause terror within the refined living space. Fredri DeJaco’s Harry adds a soft-natured humor to the play, while Nancy Fiedler as Edna does well in offering several poignant lines despite being a minor character herself.
The intricate set design portrays a spacious living room comprised of Victorian-style furniture, a well-stocked — and used — bar, elegant floral arrangements, and a crystal chandelier. As a living room, it serves as a nexus for the house functioning as a location where people meet and converse with one another. Its spaciousness, symmetrical design, and antique nature also create a rigid space for the characters to spill into — a space that factors into the equilibrium that Agnes so desires, in part by requiring her to act as a homemaker, her vital role.
Credit to South of Broadway for the ambition in producing a play like this — one that requires an adept cast that can elicit the nuance from Albee’s superb writing. With this production, they have by and large done just that, resulting in an entertaining piece that will make audiences consider their own relationships and how they are affected by, say, those two friends who dropped in and just will not leave.
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