Craziness and contemplation in “Balance”

Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” is a mad play. A dispossessed daughter returns home, best friends become bothersome fools and at the heart of it all, a married couple teeters on the lip of lunacy. Yet there is method to this madness in the Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of Albee’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, which opens Friday and runs until Nov. 13.

The Rep’s second show of its 2010-2011 season is not sterile like its first, a musical adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel, “We Have Always Lived in a Castle”. In a little over two and a half hours, director James Bundy strings together an unsettling and resonant play that reminds us just how easily our tether to sanity can be snapped.

Madness takes center stage from the very outset. Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant) announces she may lose her mind; her husband Tobias (Edward Herrmann) comforts her, saying, “We will all go mad before you.” He is not mistaken.

It’s easy to see why. By the second act, a motley and meshuga crew is packed into their house. Living with them is Agnes’ sister Claire (Ellen McLaughlin), a “drunkard but not an alcoholic”. The couples’ best friends Harry (John Carter) and Edna (Kathleen Butler) take refuge from the terrifying but unidentifiable things in life. And their daughter, Julia (Keira Naughton), joins them after leaving her fourth husband.

The rest of the characters don’t want Harry and Edna in the house ­— the tension of the play arises from this fact. They displace Julia from her room, assume ownership of the home from Agnes and Tobias, and to top it off, are unaware of the imprudence of their actions until they have vexed everyone else.

Agnes is the “fulcrum” of the household, a woman determined to maintain balance and “keep it in shape”. Chalfant takes on this role with acerbic but controlled energy. She ranges from sardonic, when she apologizes for being articulate, to sympathetic, when she hurls interrogative out into the uncaring world, “What are we going to do about everything?”

Chalfant’s range is paired well with Herrmann’s Tobias, who, though not as subtle, is convincing nonetheless. Particularly memorable is the image of Tobias, clad in a night-robe, howling “Stay!” This is all consistent with Albee’s design, which creates empathetic characters by placing them at the boundaries of the human psyche and subjecting them to chaos.

Not as deserving of our compassion, however, is Julia, whom Naughton plays more as the “perpetual brat” her parents think she is than the complex 36-year-old she could be. And while Julia’s antics do add some comedy, it is the electric Claire who sets the verve of the entire play. McLaughlin may drunkenly swagger around in the role, but her entertaining yet serious portrayal reassures us of her sobriety as an actress — her biting wit points out the strangeness of a world that we recognize as our own. With enough aplomb to bound around convincingly with an accordion in tow, Claire is rightly described by Agnes as the “strongest”; the same description applies to McLaughlin’s energetic performance.

That is not to say that the play maintains this high-energy throughout; there are lulls in the madness. Episodes of philosophizing, particularly toward the end of the first act and at the beginning of the third, seemed rather slow when set against the frenetic development of the rest of the production.

But they serve their purpose in adding to Albee’s frightening mirror of a play. What the characters say and do translate into our own lives with unnerving ease. We need look no further than Agnes for an example of this: “We manufacture such a portion of our own despair.”

The hope of the play thus lies in our resilience, our ability to suffer madness and come out the better for it. Bundy’s production understands this well — it presents its audience with insanity, confident that we possess the sanity to enjoy and learn from the experience.

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