Thursday, October 7, 2010

Balancing Act: "A Delicate Balance" almost lives up to its name

Posted By on Thu, Oct 7, 2010 at 1:01 PM

Riss and Wood in A Delicate Balance
  • Riss and Wood in "A Delicate Balance"
I'm not big on unbreakable rules but I have a few. Like if a character suddenly appears on stage with a really conspicuous prop— say a big red accordion— he or she must use it or not use it conspicuously. It should play a role within the drama and not distract. There are moments when I feel a little bit sorry for Christina Wellford Scott who gets stranded on stage with an accordion she can't play or even use. The stunt prop stunts Scott's fine, feisty performance as Claire in A Delicate Balance. For me that accordion—not the actress saddled with it— represents everything that's wrong with Theatre Memphis' credible but not entirely satisfying revival of Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning curiosity. Each performance is as finely crafted as Bill Short's solid, hardwood fortress of a set but the individual pieces don't have much dynamism together.

Albeee's wordy play, a claustrophobic take on the American family drama uses a faintly surreal conceit to ask big questions and essay the relationships between form, content, language, and identity. Shortly after they become empty nesters Edna and Harry (Ann Sharp and Barclay Roberts, both superb) are driven from their home by a nameless formless terror they can't explain. The absence of sustained intrigue and the business it inspires compels them to barge in on their "oldest and dearest friends" with the intention of taking up residency.

Agnes (a characteristically precise Karen Mason Riss) and Tobias (Bennett Wood) are the friends in question and they are already hosting Claire, an acerbic lush who insists she can quit drinking but simply won't. They are also preparing for the return daughter Julia, a frequent divorcee who becomes homicidally furious when she discovers that her room's been loaned out to the Edna and Harry.

Poletti gives her loudest and most confident performance in ages as the intermittently stable serial bride.

I've always had an affinity for Claire. Probably because the boozy one-woman Greek chorus is such a natural theater critic. "I don't know whether to cry or applaud," she says to her benefactors, wondering (earnestly and aloud) which her family truly prefers. Scott, icily patrician one moment earthy as a barfly the next knows how to goad sister Agnes who is quaintly fascinated by madness and thoroughly obsessed with maintaining the shape of things that are by their very nature inclined to change. Scott clearly spoke for an uncommonly engaged crowd that never seemed comfortable laughing with characters that were never able to unleash the farce at the heart of A Delicate Balance. But they couldn't quite cry for them either. Applause, however, was abundant and richly deserved.

A Delicate Balance is an easily overlooked classic and this is a good evening at the theater. Warts and all.

A Delicate Balance is at Theatre Memphis through October 10

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