“Something is happening here/ And you don’t know what it is/ Do you, Mister Jones?” Dylan’s 1966 “Ballad of a Thin Man” could have been addressed to Tobias, head of the household in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance from that same year. The times they are a-changin’ but this family is locked in emotional paralysis, oblivious to all but their own misery and futility in one of Albee’s portraits of the American dream gone sour in the Sixties.
His short play The American Dream featured characters called Daddy and Mommy, whom he renamed George and Martha, the archetypal father and mother of the country, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Tobias and wife Agnes reprise the self-destructive spirals of those earlier symbolic parents. And they’re not the only ones going down with the ship.
In this Tempus Theatre production, real-life couple Anna Hagan and Terence Kelly skillfully embody Agnes and Tobias. She’s the matriarch, determined to “keep this family in shape,” while he dithers ineffectually. Their marriage—their “silent, sad, disgusted love,” she calls it in one of Albee’s many memorable lines—has long since lost its passion. They drift through their elegant home like ghosts while offstage servants manage their lives for them.
Sharing the house are their angry, unbalanced daughter Julia (T Weir), home again after her fourth marital break-up, and Agnes’ disreputable younger sister Claire (Teryl Rothery). Julia does much of the play’s emotional heavy lifting while outspoken Claire provides the comic relief.
Family friends Harry (Bert Steinmanis) and Edna (Valerie Sing Turner) also occupy the house in a strange sequence. Struck by some nameless terror in their own home, they simply move in, setting off a kind of territorial hysteria in Julia. Another loveless couple, they underline the neediness and fear at the dark heart of the play.
Albee’s grim, talky, booze-sodden vision needs a delicate touch to keep it afloat. Director Anthony F. Ingram manages the trick only in part. Some of the acting in the secondary roles is overly emphatic and the articulation of these curiously aristocratic Americans often sounds too formal. Not so Hagan and Kelly, who seem most at home here. Kelly, especially, gets it absolutely right in his portrait of the hollow man and his quiet, contained, befuddled despair.