PLAYWRIGHT EDWARD ALBEE was writing about panic attacks long before a Xanaxed American populace was regularly being diagnosed as having them, further demonstrating his prescient grasp of the unraveling of our society's collective psyche. In his nearly 40-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winner A Delicate Balance, which has just opened rather successfully at the Seattle Rep, an aging couple enters the chilly home of their startled oldest friends to formally announce that they are inexplicably terrified and won't be leaving anytime soon. "We were frightened," moans a bewildered Edna (in a pitch-perfect moment from Cynthia Lauren Tewes). "And there was nothing." Everyone in Albee's world, for that matter, is scared; his people have spent their whole lives hiding in the night from that same nothing or paying the consequences for trembling in the light of day.
A Delicate Balance
Seattle Repertory Theater ends February 25
Director M. Burke Walker's production shudders and sobs with an affectingly awkward grace, despite a slight tendency to goose Albee's juicier epigrammatic reflections just enough for us to stop and admire their appeal. Walker couches the marriage of Agnes (Beth Dixon) and Tobias (Michael Winters), an older, upper-class husband and wife, in just the right amount of fetid routine without slipping into the kind of blowsy, brittle comment that would turn their "silent, sad, disgusted love" into a retread of the famous dysfunctional marrieds from his Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Albee knows what's ugliest and most harmful about people without hating them for it, and Walker has suffused the work here with that same angrily tender pity.
Most of his cast responds with an equally sympathetic ferocity. "If you sit and watch," Tobias observes at one point after a night of turmoil, "you can see things so clearly." Both Dixon and Winters are quite moving, reeling in their different ways from the literal and figurative awakening caused by their friends' unwelcome revelation. Dixon's crispness imperceptibly softens into vaguely frozen despair. She has a glassy-eyed reminiscence of their son's death and Tobias' subsequent marital remove that is heartbreaking, and Winters' desperate scramble for redemption features some of his best recent work.
IT'S ODDLY EXHILARATING, too, to catch Barbara Dirickson sprawled out on a rug with a drink and a cigarette. As Agnes' sister Claire, a suffering cynic and drunk who happens to be the closest the play comes to a voice of reason, Seattle's preeminent leading lady lays back in a hardened repose that is a such a change of pace it's almost off-putting at first. We've come to expect a lot of things from Dirickson, but boozy indifference is not one of them. It's a snazzy, sourly dignified turn that plays in perfect countermelody to the music of Albee's feuding couples.
Phillip Davidson does well with the angst-ridden befuddlement of Edna's spouse Harry, but, in the play's final supporting character, Jan Leslie Harding is a bit of a liability. Playing Julia, the many-times- and-newly-divorced daughter of Agnes and Tobias, Harding comes in at her top and pretty much only note, peeling the paint off the walls in a wail that never varies. She purposely emulates Dirickson's loose-limbed, sardonic jazz to show us Julia's inevitable slide into Claire's melancholy apathy, which is smart, but she hasn't scored her turbulence even half as well.
Everything else is finely orchestrated. For all the toughened bitterness and remorse, the production is able to capture how very fragile the fear is here. The balance is indeed delicate and approximates Albee's shivering, ominous metaphor of a group of huddled but distant sleepless souls with "eyes wide open, staring into the dark."