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A Delicate Balance

I just had a terrifically good evening of theater, watching a stellar production of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance at the Aurora Theatre Company, in Berkeley. If the rest of the season’s plays come anywhere close, this is going to be one hell of a 20th anniversary for the Aurora.

The three-act play takes place in the living room of a home owned by Tobias and Agnes, a long-married couple (played by Ken Grantham, a founder of the Aurora all those years ago, and Kimberly King, his real-life wife). The great mouthfuls of language made conversational, the deft ways in which the pair quickly convey the personalities and relationship—the opening exchange is worth the price of a ticket in itself. Now this is acting.

The delicate balance of the marriage is upset once their daughter, Julia, returns home after her fourth failed marriage. Agnes’s sister, Claire, is already living there. If she’s not an alcoholic, she certainly likes to drink, and the stunningly acerbic, hugely entertaining Claire (Jamie Jones) provides much of the evening’s spark (even before she gets out her accordion).

And before Julia storms in, Harry and Edna, the oft-declared two “best friends in the world,” arrive unexpectedly, fleeing their own home and a vague but life-shaking terror—setting up conflicts and questions that go far beyond who will stay in Julia’s room. Excellent local veterans Charles Dean and Anne Darragh play the frightened couple; Carrie Paff (recently Albee’s Tiny Alice in Marin) is Julia. If Paff is not quite up to the level of the veterans, tipping occasionally into overacting, she is on her way to it.

Founded in 1992, the Aurora gave its first performances—readings, actually—in the living room of one of the founders, actress Barbara Oliver. Not long after, a long, narrow drawing room at the Berkeley City Club became the theater’s home for almost ten years. The plays took place at one end of the room, and the audience sat cozily along the other three sides, like 67 guests at an after-dinner entertainment.

Every seat, obviously, was a good one, although I for one was exceptionally glad when the Aurora moved to a 150-seat theater on Addison Street, next door to Berkeley Rep, in 2001. I still remember sitting on a low, extremely narrow riser at the back of the City Club room—another kind of delicate balance—against a black curtain, watching Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming in 1999 or 2000. During a dramatic moment toward the end of the first act, I shifted a bit too vigorously, and the chair and I fell noisily off the riser and (thankfully) behind the curtain. Talk about stopping the show! One of the actors called out, “Are you all right?” (Maybe that’s when the company began looking for another venue—?)

Like Pinter, Albee writes about fraught relationships and sometimes existential dilemmas. In this 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning play (the first of three), the humor and verve of the writing, especially with exhilarating acting, keep you from being flattened by your thoughts as the play ends. The terror at the heart of the drama is existential, but not only. As Dean said of the characters’ pain and fear, in the after-play discussion, “It didn’t seem existential to us.”

“The older we get,” Grantham had said earlier, in another context, “the less acting we do.”

The new theater is set up in the same way as at the Berkeley City Club, though there are more rows now, and the chairs in the highest one lean against a wall. During A Delicate Balance, the people in the first row are literally in Tobias and Agnes’s living room. Actually, I think, we all are.

 

Through Oct. 23, Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, 510.843.4822, auroratheatre.org.