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'Delicate Balance' is harrowing walk on the dark side

Some people just aren't built for happiness.

These include every last character in Edward Albee's masterful play "A Delicate Balance," a taut and harrowing production of which opened at the Andrews Theatre on Thursday night. The show, directed by Derek Campbell, takes audiences into the terrifying heart of American despair where an increasingly besotted family plays out the petty dramas of their ultimately meaningless lives.

Sounds like a hoot, no? You may not think so, but in the hands of Campbell and this gifted cast, Albee's beautifully crafted exploration of existential dread and aborted promise keeps you hanging on every last vicious word.

The play is set in the drawing room of Agnes (Josephine Hogan) and Tobias (Vincent O'Neill), a middle-aged and well-to-do couple hanging onto contentment by a fraying thread. They live with Agnes' alcoholic sister Claire (Maureen Anne Porter), a constant source of vexation for Agnes and entertainment for everyone else. This trio is getting ready to welcome the couple's daughter Julia (Morgan Chard), who is returning home after yet another failed marriage.

The booze starts flowing early, and it doesn't take long for that well-appointed drawing room to start looking like a bullring. There are thinly veiled animosities everywhere, between Claire and Agnes, Agnes and Tobias, Julia and the world. Then, just to throw the balance completely off-kilter, we meet Harry and Edna, longtime friends of Agnes and Tobias, whose arrival drives them to an existential crisis of their own. Like children, they've come seeking succor but get more than they bargained for.

This is quintessential Albee -- penetrating, uncomfortable, exquisitely wrought and entirely captivating. Even Albee's descriptions of quotidian things, like the sense of being drunk for the first time in a long time, or the feeling of coming downstairs alone in a house full of sleeping people, can be heartbreaking. They certainly are in this production when delivered by the gifted Porter and O'Neill.

The play's title refers not only to the charade its characters put on in order not to go mad, but also to the requirements of properly staging the play. Albee's writing, clean and crystalline and laden with subtext, shines in the hands of the considerate Campbell. Emphases are usually placed where they need to be in order for us to catch the disturbing undercurrents that snake through this play like a dark river.

The able cast helps this along. As the demure but put-upon Agnes, Hogan sometimes resorts to a sort of affected confidence that can make it seem hollow in places, but does a compelling job overall. O'Neill, a master of the sarcastic retort, lets us see straight into his character's heart and reveals his seemingly effortless charm as the product of a kind of desperation. Chard also turns in a fine, fiery performance as Julia. But if the show belongs to anyone, it belongs to Porter, whose spot-on deliveries of Albee's one-liners and multilayered critiques provide the play's comic thrust and its unnerving tenor.

The overall sense you get from this play is of a terrifying shriek lying just below the surface of each character's public veneer. That shriek has grown in volume across a lifetime of disappointment and can be suppressed only through the greatest effort and at the cost of personal happiness. But it escapes anyway, in the form of barbed insults and bouts of self-defeating behavior.

We all know it's there, but Albee makes us listen to it. That's his dark gift, and the best reason to see this play.



"A Delicate Balance"

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Presented by the Irish Classical Theatre Company through May 13 in the Andrews Theatre, 625 Main St.

Tickets are $34-$42. For information, call 853-4282 or visit