Tipping Point

Edward Albee's brilliant language stars in the disturbing 'Delicate Balance' at Rogue

How do we make choices? How do we live with those choices once we've made them?

Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning play A Delicate Balance explores the consequences of emotional dishonesty. The drama, from 1966, also uncovers the hidden consequences that "go underneath," as one of his characters puts it.

Opening its second show in its new home last Saturday night, the Rogue Theatre offered a rock-solid rendering of Albee's utterly captivating—and unsettling—story. With few glitches, director David Morden and his capable cast maneuver through assorted landmines.

Agnes (Cynthia Meier) and Tobias (Joseph McGrath) are a well-off couple, married for decades and content with their lives. They're drinkers, and they don't question their use of alcohol to smooth out whatever wrinkles of discomfort—or tragedy—they encounter. Agnes muses about insanity, which she imagines not as violent, but as "a drifting," while Tobias seems to reside in a world of quiet retreat.

He tolerates Claire, Agnes' proudly alcoholic sister, much better than Agnes does. With her flamboyant and unapologetic presence alone, Claire challenges the balance of the family's life.

On this particular night, that balance is further challenged by an unexpected visit from friends Edna (Maxine Gillespie) and Harry (Morden). Without revealing even a hint about what has driven them there, they explain in measured tones that they have been overwhelmed with fear—terror, actually. They can't remain in their home.

Tobias and Agnes don't question them. They allow them to settle into their daughter Julia's room, even though they're expecting her return momentarily. Her fourth marriage has dissolved, and when Julia (Avis Judd) turns up and learns that Edna and Harry have usurped her room, she acts like a child—that is, an apoplectic child with a gun. This could knock even the most stable of households off-kilter.

Albee's dialogue is skillful and beautiful, and it invites the audience to tolerate these difficult characters. We can't resist being drawn into the edifice his language constructs, even though it's strange and complicated and unpleasant. His strength as a playwright lies in his oddly imagined characters and his fearlessness in plunging into dark waters. And he is amazingly adept at having his characters say just enough to launch our imaginations into the realm of the unsaid. Maybe that's why this is the second Albee play to hit Tucson stages this season. (Beowulf Alley mounted Seascape in September and October.)

Actors love this stuff.

Meier does an admirable job as Agnes, but she is miscast: She simply does not have the bearing of age and experience required to play the character, especially in relation to Agnes' husband and sister. She should do Agnes again in 20 years.

Claire is a juicy part, and Amy Almquist plays her with fierce defiance, but she has discovered only one note for Claire. That may be Albee's fault; Claire is there for one reason, and one reason only: Her sharp tongue cuts through the clouds of obfuscation generated by the other folks. But it would be nice to experience her more as a person than as a purpose.

As the unexpected guests, Morden and Gillespie act as though they are just dropping by for a visit rather than running from a terror they cannot endure. These are small roles, but the strength of their performances enriches the characters' disturbing presence, which is simultaneously plain and chilling.

But the evening really belongs to McGrath. His Tobias is quiet, but not silent. In a confrontation with Harry, McGrath uncorks Tobias' agony with disturbing honesty and unexpected passion. Both in his quiet and in his storm, McGrath's Tobias is masterfully constructed.

Rogue's new space in the old gym of the Historic YWCA can be configured in numerous ways. For this show, the audience surrounds the stage on three sides, and the intimacy serves the story well.

This is a very good production of a well-crafted play. Bravo, Rogue.

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