Review: SOULPEPPER’S GIFT OF ‘A DELICATE BALANCE’ WARMLY RECEIVED

Joseph Szekeres

To paraphrase Linda Loman from DEATH OF A SALESMAN, ‘attention was certainly paid’ on this sold out opening night performance of Edward Albee’s A DELICATE BALANCE. When Acting Artistic Director Alan Dilworth entered the stage and thanked us for attending, the theatre roared with thunderous audience approval for him and for this production under these most egregious and difficult circumstances in the last several weeks.

And when it was opened, what a wonderful gift of tremendous care and daring display of emotional intensity by director Diana Leblanc and this astonishing company.

A DELICATE BALANCE premiered to New York audiences in 1966. Its themes of family, friendship, normalcy, and fear of the future, however, are more so relevantly parallel as actor Laura Condlln (who plays Julia) points out in her Artist Note in the programme. Ms. Condlln states that the “language in the play ranges from comic attack to philosophical conjecture which remains true, immediate and disturbing”, and how appropriate this statement resonates today especially in our neighbours to the south.  A wise artistic choice was made to stage Soulpepper’s production in the present time.

Patrick Clark’s work in costume design tastefully enhances character development. Sound Designer John Gzowski’s selection of gorgeous orchestral pre-show music underscores our swelling emotions as we listen to it. Set Designers Astrid Janson and Alexandra Lord meticulously recreate a wealthy suburbanite living room box set (without the box) lushly resplendent with deep red colours, comfortable looking furniture and stocked bar. Yet something does not seem right. Lo and behold, the carpet is noticeably and awkwardly not in alignment with the floor. It needs to be fixed and, as this nearly three-hour story progresses, we begin to see how these odd, eccentric, superficial and judgemental characters are also in need of fixing on many levels.

Albee has created a ticking time bomb of a play of dysfunctional individuals who are hanging on by a delicate balance, and this stellar cast deftly shows us a family that slowly deteriorates before our eyes. You will have to pay careful attention as this dialogue driven play gains monumental intensity as the plot progresses. Agnes and her husband, Tobias (astutely played by Nancy Palk and Oliver Dennis) may appear to be a couple whose quiet life might be appealing.  Their desperation, nevertheless, becomes shockingly apparent as they shoot slings and arrows of stabbing and biting zingers which fly ferociously across the stage at each other and others who happen to cross their paths.

Daughter Julia (Laura Condlln) has returned home after what is her supposed failed fourth marriage. Ms. Condlln deliciously plays a bitchy and spiteful woman who is ready to place blame on others for her present situation.  Ms. Condlln masterfully handles and controls her breakdown scene where audience emotions range from fear, to sadness, and to ultimate pity.  Agnes’ alcoholic sister, Claire (a feisty Brenda Robins) hones her own weaponry of cut throat comments in the unkind remarks about her niece’s marital woes while attacking her sister and brother in law’s sad, yet so called ‘normal’ married life.

Add to this explosive mixture the arrival of Agnes and Tobias’ best friends, Harry and Edna (Derek Boyes and Kyra Harper) who, for some reason, are afraid to remain in their own home. Haunted by an unnamed fear, the couple take up residence indefinitely in Julia’s bedroom much to the daughter’s chagrin. Mr. Boyes and Ms. Harper unequivocally match the performance caliber of the ‘seething and unspoken anxiety’ of the stinging dialogue.

Although I was a wee lad in the mid sixties, some personal historical research indicated this time in North America was one of great societal transformation, fear and flux.  This was the time of the Cuban missile crisis where North America, for some brief moments, experienced an unnamed fear the world could possibly end abruptly. For some, this fear never dissipated. The beginning of the sixties sexual revolution saw changes in relationships, family, societal norms and values.  For many, as the DELICATE BALANCE programme states. the world they once knew of ‘carefully maintained rules and defences began to crumble.’

Soulpepper’s A DELICATE BALANCE continues to Saturday February 10, 2018 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane in Toronto’s Historic Distillery District. Tickets may be purchased at www.soulpepper.ca, at the box office before each performance or telephone 416-866-8666. Visit their Facebook Page at Soulpepper Theatre.

Photo: L – R: Oliver Dennis, Kyra Harper, Laura Condlln, Brenda Robins, Nancy Palk and Derek Boyes.

Photo taken by Cylla von Tiedemann.