The term “dysfunctional family,” that all-purpose label used by armchair psychologists, was not yet in vogue in 1966, the year Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” introduced Agnes and Tobias to mixed reviews and a Pulitzer Prize. And it hardly does justice to the dizzying montage of aloofness, enablement, self-obsession, co-dependence and cynicism running rampant through the elegant but troubled household of Albee’s play. Yet in the hands of director Pam MacKinnon in Arena Stage’s searing and astute revival, the concept gets a most illuminating illustration.
“Balance” is the central production of Arena’s current season; it last mounted the play in 1982, with the late Robert Prosky playing Tobias. Experienced Albee interpreter MacKinnon has guided a talented cast through nuanced performances, handsomely showcased within designer Todd Rosenthal’s sumptuous, book-lined living room set. The famously hands-on playwright also visited to supply insights and a few script changes. (For example, an act-two line about “the market going bust” was deemed a tad too relevant.)
The production offers an exquisite mixture of self-pity and contempt among the tactless gathering of Westchester County elites, so skilled at getting under each other’s skin.
Kathleen Chalfant is in full patrician mode as the insufferably judgmental Agnes, who can’t spare time for compassion. Chalfant’s imperious reserve wrings maximum impact from the character’s incessant diatribes and snide retorts, an effect heightened further by Agnes’ quiet martyrdom over her son’s untimely death and her husband’s long-ago unfaithfulness.
Terry Beaver also convinces as the eternally hospitable but detached patriarch whose passivity enables the toxic torrents to flow. Beaver is riveting in his climactic confrontation with the pair of unwanted guests in act three, where repressed emotion is finally released.
Ellen McLaughlin delivers a beautifully shaded performance as the embittered alcoholic sister. She artfully maneuvers the role’s principal demands of obnoxious interloper and studious observer while also matching Agnes’ continual barbs. Ditto Carla Harting as the perpetually adolescent daughter fleeing from her fourth divorce, eager to assert every impetuous impulse. And as those uninvited guests, Helen Hedman and James Slaughter offer a revealing study of betrayal and quiet desperation that is so crucial to the piece.
Albee’s glimpse at WASP-y aristocracy still retains its potency after 40 years, even if that slice of society has lost its dominance. Why wouldn’t it be relevant today? High class or low, there’s surely a family on every block in which familiarity breeds contempt. We can only hope they are better behaved about displaying it.