BWW Reviews: City Theatre Strikes A DELICATE BALANCE with Celebrated Albee Play
Oh, Edward Albee. No one writes an American family drama quite like you.
While Albee may be most well-known for his 1963 magnum opus, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, his 1966 play A Delicate Balance is a masterpiece as well. The original Broadway production was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (an award that eluded Virginia Woolf. In fact, its language and themes caused the Pulitzer Prize advisory board to overrule Virginia Woolf's nomination, and no Pulitzer Prize was awarded in 1963). But despite a successful Broadway revival in 1996 and another looming for the 2015 season, A Delicate Balance is seldom seen. Why? I'm not sure, but I do know this. If every production of A Delicate Balance was as powerful as the current mounting at City Theatre, it would be a regional theater staple and a rite of passage for any actor or actress.
In A Delicate Balance, the lives of married suburbanites Agnes and Tobias are disrupted when their best friends, empty nesters Harry and Edna, insist to stay with them when an unnamed fear takes hold of them. Agnes and Tobias's daughter, Julia, also comes back to the next when her fourth marriage collapses. Permanent houseguest Claire, Agnes's alcoholic sister, adds to the chaos. While such characters and plot have been seen time and again in T.V. sitcoms, Albee's treatment of them, though frequently funny, is far more interesting, varied, and often terrifying.
Director Fritz Ketchum creates a pressure-cooker out of Agnes and Tobias's intimate sitting room. The entire play feels a bit claustrophobic and uncomfortable, a feeling which greatly adds to the effectiveness of the production. There are times where that intimacy forces characters to face upstage for long stretches or during key dialogue exchanges, but those few moments are easy to overlook given the overall mood Ketchum has created. Her decision to stage the play in the present day versus the 1960s is another wise choice. The mere fact that such a choice can be considered is a testament to the universality of Albee's text.
Ketchum also has a gift for inspired casting. Every member of her six person cast is perfect for their role. As Harry and Edna, Lynne Gellman and David Lee Hess are both appropriately meek and unassuming, though Gellman gets a few moments where she gets to voice her opinion and sense of entitlement. As the serial divorcée Julia, Kristin Chiles evokes the thought of Natalie Portman. As could be said about Oscar-winner Portman, it's fun to watch Chiles think and deliver lines in an intelligent, dry sort of way. Watching her slowly boil over and explode with rage is completely alarming, and one of her character's key moments was met with an audible gasp from the audience.
Tracy Hurd is just as well cast in the role of Agnes. Hurd plays Agnes as an uppity, stiff, and biting control freak. Agnes clenches the metaphorical stick up her backside so much that it could break. I know that may sound like a terrible insult, but I insist that in this case, the mention of that stick up the butt is high praise for Hurd. As Claire, Suzanne Balling gives a tremendous performance. While Balling is no stranger to the Austin stage, she's more frequently seen in dramatic roles. It's nice to see her in a comedic role, and her performance is as confident as they come.
But the biggest revelation of the cast is Scott Galbreath as Tobias. Galbreath is a new addition to Austin, and I'm certain that he will quickly become one of the most in demand performers in the city. There's a constant intensity to his performance. Even when he's still and quiet, there's something going on behind Tobias's eyes. It's clear that this is a man who could break at any moment, and when he does it's explosive.
Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including two 10 minute intermissions.
A DELICATE BALANCE plays The City Theatre at 3823 Airport Blvd, Suite D, 78722 now thru May 25th. Performances are Thursday - Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 5:30pm. Tickets are $10-$25. For tickets and information, please visit www.citytheatreaustin.org