Aurora tips Albee’s Balance delicately

Sep 09

EXTENDED THROUGH OCT. 23!
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Kimberly King (right) gives a stellar performance as Agnes in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. Agnes’ world is upended by the arrival of best friends Edna (Anne Darragh, rear left) and Harry (Charles Dean) who are fleeing a nameless terror. Below: Ken Grantham (in bathrobe) is Tobias, patriarch of a challenging clan, which now includes Harry (Dean, right) and (rear, from left) Agnes (King), Julia (Carrie Paff), Claire (Jamie Jones) and Edna (Darragh). Photos by David Allen

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance only looks like a suburban comedy. It’s really an existential nightmare slightly more gussied up than your average slasher movie. Oh, blood flows in this eviscerating drama, but it’s of a more metaphorical variety than you’ll find in the Saw franchise. Between the ravages of time and the mighty pen of Albee, the family on stage has absolutely no chance at all.

And their demise is so very delicious. (Also delicious: Albee himself was in the audience for Thursday’s opening-night performance.)

A Delicate Balance opens Aurora’s 20th season, and as directed by Artistic Director Tom Ross, it’s a perfect example of why the Aurora is such a glorious part of the Bay Area theater scene. An intimate theater and a thrust stage so deep it’s practically in the round make the Aurora a crucible in which outstanding writing and superb performances combine and, with luck and a good director, ignite. To watch an actor lose herself or himself in an exquisitely crafted part is one of the greatest pleasures in the theater, and there’s no better vantage point for this than the Aurora.

Ross’ Balance is one of those wonderful Aurora experiences – a cracking good play with a strong director at the helm and intricate performances that blur the line between art and reality.

Chief among this production’s pleasures is a central performance by Kimberly King as Agnes. Hers is a performance so compelling it’s sometimes to hard to watch anybody else. From the play’s opening moments, as Agnes muses on the very real possibility that she’ll lose her mind, it’s clear that King will be the vital center of this story. Agnes is a fascinating character – strong, controlling, incredibly smart and hard to the point of impenetrability. But through Albee’s incisive writing and King’s dynamic performance, we also see the person Agnes once was – warm, funny, compassionate, nurturing – before life, and the choices she made to deal with that life, built up her defenses and made her more sour than sweet.

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Because the audience is on three sides of the stage, it’s impossible for actors to escape the careful inspection of audience members at all times. Ross, who has been with the Aurora since 1992, is adept at directing the most minute details. This means that wherever you look at any time during the play, you’ll see something revealing, especially if, like me, you’re compelled to watch King’s Agnes for the play’s three acts and nearly three hours.

Whether she’s lovingly manipulating her somewhat baffled husband, Tobias (Ken Grantham, fighting her alcoholic younger sister, Claire (Jamie Jones or dealing with the hysteria of her oft-divorced daughter, Julia (Carrie Paff), Agnes is a force of nature (“There’s no saner woman on Earth,” we’re told). She’s well spoken (indeed, she apologizes at one point for being articulate), and her words have powerful impact. She’s the fulcrum attempting to maintain the delicate balance of the title.

She rules her suburban roost (the gorgeous living room set is by Richard Olmstead and the lighting by Kurt Landisman) like a drill sergeant crossed with dowager empress with a hint of Margaret Thatcher. And yet she’s entirely likeable, even empathetic, and that’s largely due to the intricacies of King’s masterful performance.

Agnes gets even more interesting when her world starts to rock. Errant daughter Julia returns home after her fourth failed marriage on the same day that best friends Harry and Edna (Charles Dean and Anne Darragh) arrive with news that they have fled their home due to some unnamed terror. The monster of mortality is storming the neighborhood, like Godzilla touring Japan, and Agnes is just the warrior to ready her troops. As she and Tobias discuss early in the play, from their plateau of soul-numbing suburban domesticity, “we do what we can,” so of course they take in their creepily spooked friends and mentally unbalanced daughter. They don’t want to but they do.

There are so many good laughs in this production that it can feel like a rollicking comedy, but for every great laugh line, or accordion solo, there’s an equally searing observation about marriage, friendship, family and the ruinous nature of time. As when Claire, a self-described drunk rather than an alcoholic, asks for a refill on her cocktail: “Oh, come on. It’s only the first I’m not supposed to have.” The more you laugh, the closer you get to falling down the bottomless pit – “the dark sadness” as Albee describes it – at the center of the play. And that’s a theater experience to savor.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance continues an extended run through Oct. 23 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$48. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org

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