By Jennifer Levin

Agnes and Tobias are wealthy suburbanites. They like their cocktails. They talk in that affected way, common to people of their social station, where everything is sort of a joke because everything is sort of beneath them. They smile when they’re angry, and speak through clenched teeth. They spend their afternoons at “the club” and don’t seem to need to work for a living. They think they’re happy, or happy enough.

But we’re in Albee country, where happiness is an illusion to be shattered.

The cracks appear when Agnes and Tobias’s middle-aged daughter, Julia, comes home after fleeing her fourth marriage on the same weekend their best friends, Harry and Edna, also show up, needing to stay. They were at home and became afraid, though they are unable to elaborate on that palpable terror. Agnes and Tobias’s home was already too crowded with Agnes’s alcoholic sister, Claire — the houseguest who wouldn’t leave. She’s always jabbing at Agnes’s carefully calibrated façade, and now Agnes can barely keep it together.

“People are misbehaving all around, and it’s very chaotic for her,” says Kate Clarke, who plays Agnes in Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, A Delicate Balance, directed by L. Zane Jones at Santa Fe Playhouse, opening Saturday, April 23. “She thinks it’s a matter of life and death to keep everything under control. But I think she kind of longs to lose her mind. I think that would be such a relief to her. I think she thinks about it a lot.”

Kent Kirkpatrick plays Tobias, who he says lacks for nothing — except for human connection and love. “I know this man. He reminds me of my parents, my grandparents, and their friends. Everything on the surface was perfect. But underneath there was dissatisfaction.”

For Jones, the play is about exposing the truth of this mid-20th century status quo, which she, too, grew up around. “I was around people where alcoholism was an issue, and nobody talked about it, and nobody was really emotionally available and present. As a director, I try to define the core of the play, the spine. What I keep coming back to is ‘avoiding or exposing the lie and avoiding or exposing the truth’ — what are the repercussions of not living in the truth of who we are, of not really knowing ourselves, or each other.” 

A Delicate Balance premiered in 1966 at the Martin Beck Theatre, starring Hume Cronin as Tobias and Jessica Tandy as Agnes. Kirkpatrick and Clarke agree that the materially comfortable lives of quiet desperation depicted in the play were more commonplace before the ‘60s. But Albee referred to it as taking place “Now,” so Jones isn’t making it a period piece, nor will she make it contemporary, with characters looking at cell phones. “This play is, sadly, timeless,” she says.

Certainly, plenty of people remain in unfulfilling marriages in 2022, or don’t let themselves heal properly from traumatic experiences. Or they don’t pursue their passions. But it was worse before the cultural revolution of the 1960s, which brought second-wave feminism, civil rights, anti-war protests, and a youth revolt of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. “There are so many more choices now for women to leave situations where they’re absolutely miserable,” Clarke says. “Agnes and Tobias are in a routine. It’s too late to start over. At the time that this was written, there wasn’t going to be an act two for somebody like her. I think in our culture now, people think it’s never too late to start over.”

Kirkpatrick says “Acting an armchair psychologist, I think people before [the Baby Boomer generation] were so repressed that they weren’t even aware of it.”

One of the main conflicts between Tobias and Agnes is who steers the ship. Agnes manages the house and keeps herself and everyone else in line. Tobias is sliding into old age with his memories, all but doddering, but he’s the man and is therefore in charge. Neither one wants to relinquish control nor admit they are the one with the power. It’s an impasse that has lasted for years. “There’s a scene where Tobias shows some vulnerability in asking for help, and Agnes gets revenge on him by declaring that she’s not going to give help,” Kirkpatrick says. “That’s pretty passive-aggressive. Everyone in this play is passive-aggressive.”

As for what their friends, Harry and Edna, are afraid of, it could be their own waning relevance in the face the massive cultural shift on the horizon, or even the era’s looming nuclear threat. Not much has changed in the intervening decades, with the added pressures of a deadly virus, gun violence, and increasing cultural stratification. Jones has little patience for Harry and Edna, who Albee suggests in the casting are just like Agnes and Tobias. “These people benefit from the status quo. Their fear is real, but courage is having fear and walking through it anyway.”

The play’s truth-tellers are poor, drunk Claire, and Julia, the basket-case who can’t keep a man. In the 1960s, Claire might have been seen as comic relief — because she is funny — but she’s also tragic: A woman so in thrall to her addiction that she has to live with her older sister, who hates her. Julia, a woman in her 30s who has been in four relationships, isn’t particularly remarkable in this day and age. The passage of time has transformed her into the play’s most sympathetic character, even if she’s made a few terrible life choices.

“She’s clueless, and definitely privileged, but a contemporary audience will be hip to the fact that she’s had no guidance, no role-modeling for how to have a healthy relationship,” Jones says.

“Agnes and Tobias have pushed her into these marriages, but I think there’s a piece of Agnes that wants Julia home,” says Clarke. “Julia is screaming the house down, but I think the audience is going to see her as having the reasonable response to the situation.”

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