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Review: ‘Delicate Balance’ holds up as a study of bourgeois hypocrisy (Includes first-hand account)

Both the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail reviews lead off by alluding to the scandal involving the Soulpepper founder; both critics even attempt to make a connection between the scandal and themes in Edward Albee’s 1966 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama – particularly the dark undercurrents running beneath a seemingly functional family – although I’m not really buying that. You can enjoy director Diana Leblanc’s staging of A Delicate Balance without thinking about Schultz or his supposed misdeeds, and since he’s gone from the company, he won’t benefit from your attendance in any way.

And two legit reasons to enjoy this production, which opened on Thursday, are the leading performances by Soulpepper regulars Nancy Palk and Oliver Dennis, both of whom are very good as Agnes and Tobias, a retired bourgeois Connecticut couple whose façade of normalcy and peacefulness is threatened over a weekend by three unexpected visitors – unstable daughter Julia (Laura Condlln), who has just left her husband, and friends Harry (Derek Boyes) and Edna (Kyra Harper) – and by Agnes’ hard-drinking sister and permanent house guest, Claire (Brenda Robins).

Harry and Edna take the play into a slightly surreal turn, saying that they have fled their home after feeling an overwhelming “fear.” The source of their sudden terror is never specified or explained, but it has driven them to seek shelter with the bewildered Agnes and Tobias, barely with their permission. Although Agnes is the one used to maintaining the balance of the household, Tobias is the one forced to bring it back by breaking out of his passive shell and confronting the unwanted guests. “We do what we can,” he says meekly about the situation, a phrase that Agnes calls “our motto.”

Meanwhile, Claire plays the wild-and-crazy crap disturber of the group, confronting the others with unpleasant truths and sharp sarcasm from the sidelines, referring to the thrice-divorced, newly separated Julia as a “quadruple amputee” among other barbs. She even brings an accordion into the mix in the second act.

Like many of Albee’s best works, Balance takes the mickey out of upper-middle-class life and exposes the cracks and hypocrisies behind the false virtue and sophistication. If it doesn’t seem as bold or outrageous as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or The Goat or, Who Is Silvia? – both of which Soulpepper has staged before – it may be because of the late playwright’s choice to focus on bleak existential monologues more than on plot or shock value. (Tobias’ troubling story about a cat he once had is a little reminiscent of Jerry’s lengthy speech about the dog in The Zoo Story.) But Leblanc’s direction maintains a fair balance between conflict and ideas and holds audience interest for nearly three hours.

While Condlln is also strong as the neurotic, outburst-prone Julia, and Boyes is fine in his limited stage time, I’m feeling rather mixed about Robins as Claire. She puts a lot of energy into the part and scores most of the play’s (uncomfortable) laughs, but sometimes appears to be straining a little to be funny or smart-alecky. And unlike with, say, Kate Reid’s wonderful interpretation of the character in the 1973 film adaptation, I don’t buy that Robins’ Claire is an alcoholic, or even a recovering one; she often seems too stable and level-headed for that.

Set designer Astrid Janson fills the bourgeois living-room set with dark red and burgundy – everything from the walls and front door to the carpet and even the pillows on the couch. This may be a way of symbolizing simmering tension and anger underneath the WASP manners and tastefulness of Agnes and Tobias, but those who notice it may see it as overkill. The carpet is deliberately uneven on the floor space, with one end of it overlapping onto a wall – an obvious suggestion of “imbalance” or, at least, of a tripping hazard.

After two decades of revivals of classic plays, including some terrific productions, the future of Soulpepper is uncertain as the company faces multi-million-dollar lawsuits for not having taken action to prevent Schultz’ alleged harassment. But you can’t hold that against all the individual artists who have contributed strong work and relied on Soulpepper for their training and careers, and I hope this doesn’t mean the impending end of even decent productions like A Delicate Balance. If the company is to reemerge from this mess into a new era, it will have to maintain its own delicate balance between creating high-quality work and providing safe work spaces for all its employees.

A Delicate Balance runs at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until February 10.

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