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Arena’s Frighteningly Good Balance

Albee’s play about fear gets lovely revival.

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L-R) Ellen McLaughlin as Claire, Kathleen Chalfant as Agnes, Terry Beaver as Tobias, and Carla Harting as Julia in A Delicate Balance at Arena Stage in Crystal City February 6—March 15.

Most playwrights working on a drama use fear somewhere in the structure. It is almost always a fear of something specific. Fear of death. Fear of exposure for some weakness or evildoing. A dread of failure — financial or personal.

Not Edward Albee. At least not when he was writing "A Delicate Balance" which earned him his first Pulitzer Prize (he has three). The play, which is being performed now by an exemplary cast at Arena Stage’s temporary home in Crystal City, is about fear itself — or, more precisely, about dread. Albee never diffuses the focus by specifying what is feared. This isn’t a play about danger or threat. No monster with a machete in a goalie’s mask or fanged vampire or slick-suited mafia don is presented. Just people in fear.

Those people are wealthy. They exist in a world of refinement and comfort. Their relationships may not be as successful as they dreamed they would be (the principal couple no longer share a bedroom, let alone a bed and their daughter is reeling from the collapse of her own fourth marriage.) But their world seems about as secure from external threat as possible.

Still, that world, beautifully envisioned in Todd Rosenthal’s set of a well decorated living room and costume designer Ilona Somogyi’s marvelously appropriate outfits for each and every one of the characters, is no protection from the fear of some exterior danger.

Those characters are played by an ensemble of superb performers with Broadway veterans Kathleen Chalfant and Terry Beaver in the lead roles of the man and woman of the house, the couple who haven’t shared a bedroom since the death of their son from an unspecified cause an unspecified time ago. Being unspecific is exactly the tool Albee is using and it gives these fine performers the latitude to go at their parts and each other with a vigor that is remarkable. Beaver’s third-act tirade is particularly spectacular while Chalfant is absorbing all evening long.

Ellen McLaughlin is the wife’s sharp tongued alcoholic sister with a past and Carla Harting is their oft-returning daughter who throws something of a fit over the fact that "her" room isn’t ready for her re-occupancy without advance notice even though she’s all of 37 years old.

The room isn’t available because a couple they think of as their best friends have unexpectedly shown up not just seeking but expecting asylum from some unexplained danger that has caused them to flee their home just a short drive away.

Albee doesn’t concentrate on plot so much as on the inner workings of the characters’ minds. Not much actually happens between the opening and final lines of the nearly three hour play, but in the hands of these performers under the direction of Pam MacKinnon, the by-play of language and the flow of emotions makes the evening a memorable one.

<i>Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.</i>