The Canadian Act III

Is there a generally-agreed-upon term for a lover of Canada? Canadaphile? Canadorante? Well, whatever you want to call us, our little family recently returned from two weeks in the promised land: a long weekend in Stratford, followed by ten days in the Canadian Rockies. A more salutary restorative I cannot imagine (and therefore have no word for).

Of course, on the first leg of the trip, we took in a few shows (and a few after-theater festivities, including a fantastic cabaret show by the incomparable Bruce Dow). This was our last trip to Stratford for the season, so herewith the first of the last batch of reviews, a review of Diana Leblanc’s production Edward Albee’s play, A Delicate Balance.

I must say at the outset, I’m at a bit of a disadvantage here, as I’ve never seen Balance before, so to a greater extent than is optimal in a review of a classic (and this play is generally considered a modern classic) I reacted to the play rather than the production. Moreover, I hadn’t even read the play before seeing it. I think both things were all to the good in terms of my personal theatrical experience; the production moved me in a way that I think it would have been less likely to do had I more of a history with the play. But I’m not sure that my personal experience, as opposed to my judgement, is especially interesting to a reader.

The play, for what it’s worth, surprised me, and surprised me twice. We’re introduced, in Act I, to a particularly Albee family group: tyrannical mother (Agnes, played with extreme hauteur by Martha Henry), ineffectual father (Tobias, played by David Fox), wayward daughter (Julia, played by Michelle Giroux) and auntie sot (Claire, played by Fiona Reid). My comment to my wife at the first interval, "you know, hon, I don’t think any of these people are Jewish." Nor, unfortunately, are they especially likeable, not even the father, whom everyone else on stage seems to get on reasonably well with, or, at least, better than they do with anyone else; nor even the aunt who’s there primarily for comic relief, but whose verbal assaults on her sister are too obviously self-serving. So I thought I was in for an evening of get-the-WASP which, when Albee is in top form, is amusing enough, but which isn’t generally my cup of tea.

Then the neighbors, Harry (played by James Blendick) and Edna (played by Patricia Collins), show up, having fled a nameless terror that afflicted them in their own home, seeking sanctuary in Tobias and Agnes’. They settle themselves in Julia’s room, rather unsettling Julia when she comes home, fleeing her latest failed marriage, her fourth. So now I thought, OK, we’ve got the usual Albee "twist" – the surreal intrusion that forcibly brings to light what has been long hidden. Sometimes it’s a goat; sometimes it’s an imaginary child; this time it’s a nameless terror. And as the second act wears on, it becomes clearer and clearer that from the perspective of the other characters, what has been revealed is that Tobias is unwilling to play the part of head of household and deal with the intrusion. Finally, Julia even brings down her father’s gun in an attempt to force his hand, but she is disarmed.

Once again, I thought I had a handle on what this play was about. But, in Act III, Albee truly surprised me, by giving Tobias a speech that completely changed, for me, what the play was about, and gave me a new appreciation for what I’m afraid I have to call Albee’s sensitivity. That’s not a word often applied to him; he’s caustic, vicious, brutal, misanthropic – anything but sensitive. But howsoever much his heart may be bitter, he still has a soul of a great  writer, which is to say: a soul that can commune, honestly, with other souls.

Harry, coming downstairs the morning after Julia’s fireworks, puts the question bluntly to Tobias: does he want them, Harry and Agnes, to stay? Talking things over with his wife in bed the previous night, they both realized that, had Tobias and Agnes shown up on their doorstep, seeking sanctuary from a nameless terror, they would not have taken them in. Why should they presume Tobias and Agnes have let them in willingly? So: does he want them to stay?

Tobias’ answer astonished me. Cornered, he is forced to reveal the truth, and the truth is . . . he wants them to stay. No: he doesn’t want them in his house; they are intruders; their presence isn’t desired; they are disrupting his house and his life. No, in fact, he doesn’t even lik Edna, and never did. But Harry is his friend. He has a right to be there, a right to sanctuary, along with Edna, his wife. And Tobias will make a stand upon his friend’s rights as a friend, he welcomes them to stay as long as they like, to take anything from him they will, because they have a right to everything, because that’s what friends do for friends: they give them all.

As I say, the speech struck me full across the face. I did not expect Albee to give his ineffectual WASP protagonist a speech defending Christian friendship, pretty much as Augustine might have understood it. The play, as it turns out, is not about a WASP paterfamilias who can’t muster the courage to do anything to save his family; its about a conflict of values: between family and friendship. And that’s a conflict that cuts right to the heart of the way of the WASP, as it cuts to the heart of Christian ethics. To whom do we owe our first obligation: to our true friends, or to our family? Most people would say, to our family, but Jesus tells his followers to forsake their families for his sake, and Augustine identified true friendship as a grace bestowed by the Holy Spirit directly. And American WASP culture is cluttered with institutions – colleges, fraternities, secret societies, clubs, and so forth – designed to foster bonds of friendship that are meant to be the member’s primary allegiance – implicitly, ahead of family. E. M. Forster famously said that if he had to choose between betraying his country or betraying his friend, he hoped he’d have the courage to betray his country. Tobias’ speech is the equivalent; forced to choose between betraying his friend and betraying his family, he musters up the courage to betray his family. When Tobias stands for the right of his friends to destroy his family, he is making a last doomed stand for his culture; and for all that Harry is embarrassed by the speech, everyone on stage recognizes the nobility in Tobias’ stand, even as they know it has finally alienated everyone onstage from him.

The moment was incredibly powerful, and I’m not sure I properly recall the rest of the play afterwards. But I recall enough to be able to say that the production was superb. The set managed to perfectly reflect the period (the suburban ’60s) while also being plausibly contemporary (I could imagine buying pretty many any piece of furniture in the set for my own home). Martha Henry had absolute authority in the role of Agnes. Fiona Reid’s timing was impeccable as her drunken sister, Claire. Michelle Giroux did some of the best work I’ve seen her do as the bratty daughter, Julia. And Patricia Collins played Edna as if she were a glass dagger, very fine. The only performance I really felt detracted from the production was James Blendick’s Harry. Blendick delivered every line with his trademark sonorousness, but he wound up making Harry seem, frankly, a little dim, and totally opaque. I not sure how much of this was even intentional; in any event, it was quite problematic in the climactic Act III scene between Harry and Tobias not to have any idea what was going through Harry’s mind, or if he even had a mind. Finally, I thought David Fox’s performance was masterful, especially in that same sequence, but I know this is not a universal opinion. I’m eager to see another production of this play, if only to get a bit more perspective.

In any event, I didn’t feel it reached quite the heights of Leblanc’s production of Ghosts last year in the same space, but her Delicate Balance may well have been the highlight of this year’s season for me.