This week Live Arts opens its season by inviting the public into an intimate theater in the round to observe the interior lives of family and friends in Edward Albee’s 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, A Delicate Balance. Director Fran Smith says it is an eloquent work that “centers around family dysfunction.”
The setting is Westchester County, 1966, inside the home of an upper-middle-class couple, Agnes (played by Boomie Pedersen) and Tobias (Chris Baumer). Also living in the house is Agnes’ alcoholic sister Claire (Jamie Virostko). As the play begins, their adult daughter Julia (Kiri Gardner) returns home when her fourth marriage ends, and their best friends, Harry (Tim Read) and Edna (Jane McDonald)—frightened by some unknown terror—ask to stay in the house.
A Delicate Balance
Through November 11
Tension builds even while humor ripples throughout as Harry and Edna take over Julia’s childhood bedroom, Claire addresses her alcoholism as she continues to drink, Agnes toys with the idea of the fragility of sanity (and, by extension, the functionality of her family) and Tobias finds himself lonely among the women.
“The thing that’s fun about the play,” Smith says, “is what if your neighbor came in and said, ‘Can I go to bed?’ It’s that kind of humor.” And, she says, “The juxtaposition of characters in this play is such that there’s wonderful theatrical tension with beautiful words.”
And while the play provides a snapshot of our culture 50 years ago, the family and social issues it addresses are still relevant today. “Times change, but people don’t,” Smith says. “Albee only changed two things in the rewrite before he died. Having just seen a reiteration of it he said, ‘It’s still timely’—and it is.”
It addresses addiction, the emotional labor of maintaining a household, the pressures of adulthood and the fear of aging. The bar from which the characters imbibe plays a big role, Smith says. “I think Claire drinks 15 drinks in 45 minutes,” she adds. And yet, she says, “As much as families have dysfunction, it does not deny that they love each other.”
The play also looks at fear through the mysterious terror that drives Harry and Edna to Agnes and Tobias’ house. Smith says, “Agnes defines it as a disease, a plague, so to speak… I think it’s a state of mind where you get to this point in your life where you have this house, you go to the club, and all of a sudden there’s nothing.” Smith theorizes that Harry and Edna’s terror may stem from a lack of self-awareness. “They don’t know who they are,” she says. “They don’t know what they are to each other.”
Smith, who moved to Charlottesville in 1987 and co-founded Live Arts in 1990, says she understands the play better now than she did 30 years ago. While she has also acted throughout her career she was drawn to directing because, as the six-foot-tall, oldest of five children, she’s “always been in a leadership position just naturally.” But it appeals to the former student of sculpting for another reason. “There’s a blocking component that is really kind of exciting for me, to be able to create beautiful pictures with human beings,” she says.
This production offered a particular challenge since it is done in the round, requiring “every movement to be accessible on all four sides.” She says her assistant director, Tim White, provides a balance (fitting for the play’s title) to her direction. “He’s the one who pays attention to what lines they’re saying where I’m more of a visual person,” she says. “So we’re a great team. I’m really grateful for all the talent I’m working with.”