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These days, the prospect of staging an Edward Albee play seems a little like tiptoeing through a live minefield. The estate of the recently deceased and multiple Pulitzer-winning playwright is notorious for the strict performance requirements it exacts from companies that agree to produce his work.
Back in May, the Albee Estate pulled the rights of a Portland production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” over the theater company’s decision to cast an African-American actor in a role Albee’s original script stipulated ought to be filled by blonde and white thespian. The ensuing furor ignited a national debate over race in casting and the limits of creator control.
Strollers Theatre’s upcoming production of Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” (opening this Friday at the Bartell Theatre) courts no such controversy. Director Scott Albert Bennett’s vision of Albee’s tale of a couple whose tightly controlled lives are disrupted when they’re confronted by married friends who’ve been spooked by a nameless “fear” follows the playwright’s stage and casting instructions to the letter.
“I’m of two minds over the Albee situation from earlier this year,” says Bennett, who was once part of a production of a Samuel Beckett play that was shuttered for failing to follow the playwright’s directives. “I have my opinion and then I have what I would do. An actor is a character and can embody that truth without worrying about cross-gender or colorblind casting. That said, there’s the necessity of signing a contract that has restrictions in it. You have to do what is said, whether you like it or not.”
Bennett, who’s also the president of Strollers’ Board of Directors, put “A Delicate Balance” on his company’s docket for a couple of reasons: First, it’s the Bartell’s 20th anniversary, and its presenting companies are each staging a play they performed in their inaugural seasons. More importantly, the play fits with the theme of Strollers’ 61st season: Reflections.
“Even though it’s set in 1966, these characters are not different from what you see today,” explained Bennett. “They’re blind to the fact that they keep going around and never resolving anything.”
And there’s plenty to resolve. You’ve got Agnes and Tobias, a married couple who scrupulously avoid discussing the impact of a tragic loss, and Claire, Agnes’s boozehound sister. Then Harry and Edna, the couple running from that nameless fear, show up at the door asking to stay, followed by the return of Agnes and Tobias’ daughter Julia, fresh from her fourth divorce.
Oh, and as is often the case in Albee’s plays, the characters drink. A lot. Like, a lot.
“Blocking this play was like choreographing alcohol,” quips Bennett. “There were lots of times where I had to say to one of my actors, ‘Wait—you have a drink in your hand here.’”
But even more than the booze-fueled interpersonal conflicts, Bennett thinks audience members are most likely to recognize the pervasive sense of dread that’s dogging Harry and Edna.
“In this current political landscape, a lot of us are afraid right now,” says Bennett. “And that fear freezes you and affects your life.”
“A Delicate Balance” runs through September 30 in the Bartell. For ticket information, click here.
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.