Ti-Ahwaga finds right balance in challenging play

Reviewed by George Basler

One thing can be said about the Ti-Ahwaga Community Players: They don’t shy away from taking risks.

Having turned in a very solid effort last fall in staging Arthur Miller’s classic Death of a Salesman, the company is now tackling Edward Albee’s challenging A Delicate Balance, play that is not for actors who are faint of heart.

Despite winning the Pulitzer Prize, the 1966 play has never enjoyed the commercial success of Albee’s flamboyant Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. That’s not surprising since A Delicate Balance, despite moments of dark humor, is a deeply serious play that focuses on the complex topics of self-delusion; the difficulty, if not impossibility, of humans connecting with each other; and one’s isolation in an icy world.

But, if you’re up to the challenge, a drive to Owego is worth the effort to see a superb cast maintain its own delicate balance of successfully rendering Albee’s elegant, but complex, language while creating realistic characters in a play that, at times, can seem artificial.
Like Virginia Woolf, A Delicate Balance, which opened at Ti-Ahwaga last weekend and will continue through Feb. 24, takes place in a confined space — in this case, the tastefully decorated living room of a suburban home on the East Coast. The room is nicely realized by set designer Todd Smith.

Not much happens in conventional dramatic terms. Tobias, a passive husband (Keith Nichols), and his acerbic wife, Agnes (Jane Nichols), have settled in for another evening by the hearth with Agnes’ outspoken alcoholic sister, Claire (Stacy Jo Oropello).
The routine is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of the couple’s best friends, Edna (Linda Fenescey) and Harry (James Osborne), who have fled their home because of an unnamed fear. Harry and Edna stay and set up residence. They are joined by Julia (Sarah Jensen), Tobias and Agnes’ neurotic grown daughter, who has fled the debris of her fourth unsuccessful marriage.

Everyone drinks to excess and verbally lacerates each other. Nobody’s a happy camper.
A sense of dread also hangs over the entire situation. I’m not going to pretend I totally understood the play, but what Albee seems to be saying is that we all live with a kind of fear, or pain, that tests human relationships, and sadly we fall short in responding to each other’s cries for help.

The play seems designed to draw conflicting opinions. While some will find it daring (one of my friends is a big enthusiast), others may see it as pretentious. There are some fine speeches in which characters reveal their feelings, but they pile into each other, reducing the impact. Albee, without question, writes beautifully, but there are times you wish he’d taken his foot off the accelerator and stopped reaching for confessional moment after confessional moment.

What is consistent throughout is the skill of the six actors on the stage at Ti-Ahwaga. At times during the play, I almost forgot about the plot and just sat back and appreciated the cast’s skill in handling Albee’s complex, and labyrinthine, language.

All the actors get a chance to shine in solo speeches as well as play off each other. Jane Nichols brings a cold authority, and a sense of heartbreak, to the role of Agnes. Keith Nichols is fine as the passive husband whose buttoned-up emotions burst in a shattering speech on friendship in Act III that is a highlight of the play. Oropello is funny and frightening as the dipsomanic sister as is Jensen as the neurotic daughter. Osborne and Fenescey as Harry and Edna hold their own in the strong cast.

Director Shawn Yetter, who has done a fine job, is upfront in saying that A Delicate Balance is a play for people who want to see “something a little different.” Some viewers will welcome the difference; others may not find it their cup of tea. But Ti-Ahwaga should be applauded for not playing it safe.

A Delicate Balance is being performed at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center, 42 Delphine St., Owego, through Feb. 24. Shows start at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $18. Friday admission for students with ID cards is $10. Sunday admission for ages 60 and over is $15. To reserve seats, call (607) 687-2130. For more information, visit http://www.tiahwaga.com.

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