I’ve come to the regrettable conclusion that many of the great family-dysfunction plays of the twentieth century ( Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Tennessee Williams), A Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Eugene O’Neill), Death of a Salesman (Arthur Miller), to name a few) are becoming obsolete. Or at the very least their anachronisms are starting to look like charming artifacts of another era, like women’s corsets and men who go to war because it’s the right thing to do.
When these plays were written, there was still something daring and provocative about peeling away a family’s layers of pretension to reveal the festering sewer of shame (i.e. truth) at its core—be it alcoholism, homosexuality, drug addiction, incest, infanticide, or whatever. But we now live in a world where dysfunction is so pervasive, the display of it so overt and appalling, and the magnitude of it so overwhelming, that it’s tough for a few mildly depressed people in a parlor room to compete.
Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance , now receiving a perfectly respectable production on the Guthrie Theater’s proscenium stage, is a fine example of a play that’s become almost irrelevant over time. It’s about a comfortably wealthy and stable couple, Agnes and Tobias, who tolerate the wife’s alcoholic sister Claire living with them, welcome their daughter Julia home after she separates from her husband, and—when their neighbors Edna and Harry arrive unannounced, claiming to be scared out of their wits by some unnameable fear—invite them to stay too. That’s a bit too much hospitality for the daughter to handle (they’re staying in her old room, after all!), so she throws a hissie fit and things become slightly uncomfortable. But only slightly , and therein lies the problem.
If you add up the collective dysfunction in this play, you’ve got some alcoholism, a few divorces, a possible affair, some neurotic control issues, and a wee bit of existential dread. By today’s entertainment standards—when every conceivable human perversion is a CSI plot twist, and family dramas compete for the most number of characters bound for the psych ward—it would be conspicuous if a character didn’t have at least that much baggage in their past. And compared to what’s happening to average people in real life now, it’s so far removed from reality that it’s close to being a joke.
On the block where I live, for example, I can show you a house where the father blew his head off with a shotgun in the garage; another family whose son did the deed with a pistol; a teenager who was stalked and nearly raped by a coach at her school; another teenager who makes a habit of staging suicide attempts; a family who had to hire a company to forcibly haul their son to rehab; a couple whose daughter died of SIDS; a suspected pedophile; two babies born to teenagers out of wedlock; a dad who beats his daughter for getting lousy grades; and a two-bedroom house with a family of nine living in it. And we live in a “good” neighborhood! Add to that general fears of terrorism, global warming, economic meltdown and job loss, not to mention online predators, contaminated food, and drug-resistant flu strains, and suddenly a vague sense of despair starts to sound like a luxury. It beats an imminent sense of doom, at any rate.
The “delicate balance” alluded to the in the title is the game of pretenses people play in order to live with each other and maintain some sense of civility. Edna and Harry may be Tobias and Agnes’s “best friends” at the country club, but maintaining a healthy distance from them is crucial to maintaining that supposedly cherished friendship. And Agnes may believe that she holds the family together with her unflappable sense of decorum and keen eye for other people’s failings, but that too is a pretense—one she imagines dispensing with at both the beginning and end of the play (horrors!).
“It’s the function of creative people to disturb the peace,” is a line in the program notes attributed to the playwright, Edward Albee. The problem with A Delicate Balance is that it’s hard to see how it can disturb anyone anymore. What once was a play that threatened to unhinge the ties of family and friendship that hold American life together now seems like a quaint period piece about people who no longer exist—people who keep their problems to themselves and get by with a few scotch-and-sodas at night. These days, the problems are larger, the drugs stronger, and the consequences far more discomfiting. There is no balance, delicate or otherwise. The whole thing is out of whack.
I don’t mean to imply that A Delicate Balance isn’t well done—it is. John Arnone’s spacious living-room set is gorgeous. Margaret Daly plays Agnes with a wry poise and engaging spunk. Raye Birk is a believably baffled shlub at the mercy of his women, Candy Buckley is a suitably repellant Claire, and the rest of the cast—Charity Jones as the daughter Julia, Stephen Yoakam as Harry, and Angela Timberman as Edna—all hit their marks.
It’s the play itself that feels out of place. My guess is that many people who see it would gladly trade their problems for those of just about any character onstage. Reflecting on the cause of their own panic, Harry even admits that he and his wife Edna really don’t have anything to be afraid of. That’s a state of mind it’s hard nowadays to imagine.
A Delicate Balance continues at The Guthrie Theater through Mar. 1, guthrietheater.org