Then, practically on the eve of the first and only preview performance -- which is to be reviewed by at least two publications (including this one) -- something happens to your set designer. He is suddenly out of the picture. But a duly acknowledged 11th-hour savior is found to step in and save the day, if not the design. I don't know what happened to the designer credited in the program (Chad Owens), but a special insert thanks Michele Tedeschi for taking over and "work[ing] around the clock, literally, to create the atmosphere you see before you."
It is a very tough proposition to produce theater at all, but under conditions implied by the above, one wonders if Chamber Theatre director Frank E. Reilly might not have been better advised to postpone. Prematurely opening Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance with a cast whose professional experience is somewhat limited is akin to asking a plucky and ordinarily competent community-based orchestra to sight-read Bach for a concert. You feel for them, you admire what they are able to pull off, but you yearn to experience the piece as it was intended, without having to worry about the players. Or the set designer.
A Delicate Balance, which won Albee the Pulitzer Prize in 1966, is a brilliant arrangement of dramatic thrusts and parries that absolutely require flawless timing and line delivery. The action takes place over a weekend at the comfortably appointed home of Tobias and Agnes, an older married couple. Also involved are Claire, Agnes' alcoholic sister; Julia, the couple's unstable adult daughter, who is retreating from her latest marital disaster; and their best friends, Edna and Harry, who arrive unannounced on Friday, fleeing a nameless terror, and depart unceremoniously on Sunday.
Of the players who are rotating through on a temporary basis -- Julia, Harry, and Edna -- the question becomes who will stay and who will go. Agnes pretends the decision falls to Tobias: "Your house is not in order," she says. "It's full to bursting." He insists that she is the decision-maker. But in the end, both are powerless: Harry and Edna decide to leave on their own, despite Tobias' pitiful begging that they stay.
This is a play about power, belonging, and point of view: where you stand when you confront the terror Albee sees at the center of everyone's existence, and how shifting your own place in an ordered group such as a family must necessarily upset its hard-won balance and change the overall pattern. It's about the uncertainty at every level of life and the relentless progress toward death, no matter what.
Director Reilly's instincts are good. His actors move about the stage in a circular pattern as though they were players in a game of musical chairs. From time to time, exhausted by the sheer folly of the contest, they sit stiffly, face front, and avoid each other. But Reilly's best intentions remain unrealized as acted by a company that is underrehearsed and even uncertain of its lines.
Albee is not a playwright an actor can paraphrase. His work is as much about sound and rhythm and juxtaposition as it is about meaning. And it's very much about meaning. He uses words like musical notes to create a counterpoint of sound and sense, comedy and tragedy.
Here's a tiny sampling: On one side of the stage, the sisters are bickering. On the other side, Tobias considers an unpleasant chore suggested moments ago by Agnes, his wife. Claire, who is drunk, says to her sister, "Why don't you die?" Tobias, poised over a brandy snifter and apparently oblivious to Claire's venomous banter, says, "If I saw some point to it." It's a lovely moment, and beautifully done by the Chamber players, even if it disappears almost at once.
A Delicate Balance is composed of such interchanges, some of which work, as interpreted by the Chamber Theatre, and some of which fall completely flat. However, moments that are ragged and rough now will undoubtedly improve after a couple of weeks of honing. I'm thinking in particular of a scene between mother and daughter in the second act where they almost connect before Agnes' seemingly innocent "How are you, darling?" leads to one of Julia's tantrums. A word or two were missed, which threw the actors off and distracted from Agnes' remark about Julia's needing "a cuffing around the ears," a sly reference to a story Tobias told in the first act about how he had struck a pet that had withdrawn its affection.
Besides the problem with the set design -- it looked thrown together overnight -- the valiant efforts of the cast do not make up for their shortcomings. Ralph Miller's Tobias is detached to the point of nonparticipation in the first act. But he gains authority steadily and in the end delivers a believably pathetic appeal to his friend Harry.
As Agnes -- "the fulcrum of this balancing act" (otherwise known as the family) -- Jane Carmichael has moments of real brilliance that unfortunately alternate with moments of apparent fudging. But her portrayal of a woman who uses a veneer of civility to mask anger and loneliness is haunting and unforgettable.
Kathleen Gerard's Claire, the character most like Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- drunk, uninhibited, and desperate -- brings energy and life to the proceedings, even if her antics are overplayed from time to time.
Martha Ragsdale is Julia, the perpetual adolescent who cannot stay married and who is fated to return home after each disaster. Her whining, amusing at first, gets very old very fast. Her subsequent breakdown, in which she tries to e-vict Harry and Edna by threatening them with a gun, is surprisingly effective, even though Albee exhibits little or no empathy with this character.
Suzanne Voss and Gerald E. Ambinder are Edna and Harry, respectively. They provide convincing portrayals of friends who offer distraction and tip the balance away from the family itself. To be sure, these are the least complicated of the six characters, but both Voss and Ambinder bring a welcome ease and confidence.
In the end, with all the frustrations of a shaky preview, the play remains one of Albee's most enigmatic and fascinating. Luckily for the Chamber Theatre, it's also highly durable and manages to maintain its own delicate balance.
A Delicate Balance runs through Oct. 8 at the Phoenix Theatre in S.F.; call 346-3107.