Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Bourgeois dysfunction

Edward Albee picks heterosexual marriage apart

DELICATE BALANCE: Marriage is 'our best, if failed, way of trying to find some confirmation that we are human, that we exist,' says director Anthony F Ingram. Credit: Xtra West files

It’s been a good 40 years since Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance graced a Vancouver stage — astonishing, given that it’s one of the gay American dramatist’s greatest plays.

A cerebral, mercurial étude on marriage, home, friendship and family, the 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winner features some of the wittiest, most sophisticated, most sublimely beautiful dialogue ever heard on the modern stage.

Thankfully for Albee-philes, the long wait will soon be over, as the newly formed Tempus Theatre mounts its rendering of the play at the Jericho Arts Centre Mar 1-18.

“The fact that it hasn’t been done [here since 1967] just startles me,” says the show’s director, Anthony F Ingram. “Perhaps the idea of Albee and his uncompromising nature is what frightens people off. His plays really do make extraordinary demands of both artist and audience. They make you uncomfortable.

“[A Delicate Balance] is a play that should, if it’s done right, affect an audience in a visceral way.”

When people go to the theatre, says Ingram, they usually go with a loved one. “When the lights go up at the end of this show I’d like them to turn to the person they came with and say, ‘Um, gee, where do we fit in?’

“How many plays actually do that?” he asks. “I think the play is a gift to the audience in that way.”

The play’s characters are embodiments of barely contained bourgeois dysfunction. Agnes and Tobias are a middle-aged couple living a comfortable and patterned existence. Cohabiting with them is Claire, Agnes’ sharp-tongued, alcoholic sister. But they soon find themselves sharing their home with three other people: Agnes and Tobias’ oft-married daughter, Julia, returning home after her latest failed marriage; and their best friends, Edna and Harry, who arrive to seek protection from some unnamed terror.

Ingram’s cast is comprised of some of the city’s most accomplished actors. Playing Agnes and Tobias are the real-life husband-and-wife team — and esteemed veterans of the Vancouver stage — Anna Hagen and Terrence Kelly. Teryl Rothery plays Claire, T Weir plays Julia, and Valerie Sing Turner and out gay actor Bert Steinmanis play Edna and Harry.

Ingram says that stylistically, A Delicate Balance is the polar opposite of Albee’s other play about domestic disorder, the much better known and more oft-performed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

“Virginia Woolf is great because everything is out there: people get smashed over the head, their blood and guts are on the wall, it was absolutely shocking at the time,” explains Ingram. “But [A Delicate Balance] is so subtle. You never know what’s going to happen next. It’s so controlled, it’s so sharp. And I think it’s a much more sneaky way of getting things across. In the end, it’s much more poignant.

“For me, the blood and guts of Virginia Woolf becomes fireworks,” he continues. “This one is so close to home, and so private, that it’s much, much more devastating. You can walk out of the theatre after Virginia Woolf and just have a great draining sense. With this one, when you walk out you’re going to be hanging on to those thoughts and wrestling with them, because the play doesn’t really allow you to resolve that in a way that’s cathartic. It should just stick right in your solar plexus.”

Middle-class heterosexual marriage has always been a central preoccupation in the work of Albee, a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner and arguably the greatest living American playwright. So devastating are his portrayals that homophobic critics have cited his sexuality for what they claim are his perversely inaccurate, overly negative portrayals of heterosexual relationships.

“I think that’s absolute crap,” says Ingram. _”I don’t know why Albee writes about hetero couples except that he probably had issues with what he was exposed to as he grew up. Perhaps there’s a feeling that by writing about a hetero couple a playwright’s work is more accessible to a wider audience. But as to the thought that they are not as dysfunctional as Albee sees them, I think that’s a red-herring.”

Albee, Ingram explains, was adopted. “Looking at his upbringing, I would suggest that he was adopted by his parents because they were unable to conceive and had hopes that an adopted son would be able to carry on the family name. So clearly, having children was important to them, and is important to his characters.

“His turning out gay must have been a huge tragedy for them and caused massive trauma,” he speculates. “That would suggest that he’s probably trying to work out the problem of hetero marriage without children. If the Christian idea of marriage is that its ultimate goal is to produce offspring, and a couple can’t produce offspring, why are they together? They can’t get a divorce, because the Church says they can’t. So what’s left? If you take all that into consideration, it is pretty damned dysfunctional. It seems set up to be dysfunctional.”

So what does A Delicate Balance say about marriage, an institution that, at least in this country, both gays and straights now have access to?

“Marriage is such a huge mystery,” says Ingram. “Every play, every story, is about marriage. They lived happily ever after. We spend all our lives trying to find someone, something to connect with, to validate that we exist. I think that’s what it is. The search for a relationship is nothing more than a search for validity of self. Because if we don’t have something like this, something that reflects us, that says, ‘Yes, those things you value are important,’ we’ve got nothing that says we exist.

“I think Albee is asking us, ‘Why is that so?’ I don’t think anybody has ever answered that question,” he adds.

“Despite what people may think of the institution of marriage, it is what our culture is centred around, and it’s not by accident. I think it’s our best, if failed, way of trying to find some confirmation that we are human, that we exist. So it makes perfect sense that Albee would choose to write about it.”