We’re a Happy Family

“Happy families are all alike,” Leo Tolstoy writes in Anna Karenina; “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Two classic examples are on display at two Berkeley theatres, both of which are celebrating their 20th anniversary seasons right now, albeit in different ways.  Shotgun Players are in the middle of a whole season of commissioned world premieres, while at Aurora Theatre it’s old home week, bringing back key artists from throughout the company’s history. But the plays they’re doing depict two houses, alike in comfortable wealth, that have both been unhappy a very long time.

Kimberly King, Anne Darragh, Charles Dean and Ken Grantham in A Delicate Balance. Photo by David Allen.

In Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1966 play A Delicate Balance—which theaters are contractually required to bill as Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance—the family has been unhappy for a good long time, but they wear it well. In artistic director Tom Ross’s deft staging at Aurora, mature couple Agnes and Tobias lounge in Richard Olmstedt’s unusually deep set of a large, elegant living room, sipping cocktails and debating about the rules of aphorisms. Agnes speculates casually but at length—in complex, writerly syntax—about whether one day she’ll go mad.

It’s all very civilized, at least at first.  Agnes wouldn’t have it any other way, keeping things orderly with a tight smile of insistent serenity that easily becomes mocking in Kimberly King’s magnetic performance, chilly and supremely self-assured.

The worst of her venom is reserved for her boozy sister and permanent house guest Claire (Jamie Jones), who’s flippant, blunt and attention-starved in a way that makes her stroll out with an accordion just to annoy her sister, or to think it terribly droll to talk about being “a alcoholic” as opposed to “an alcoholic,” which it isn’t. She denies being either one because she’s a willful drunk—which is an easy attitude to take when everyone’s hitting the liquor cabinet, just not quite as hard.

Ken Grantham’s Tobias is reserved and mild-mannered, just pleasantly going along with whatever tirade the people around him are going on about at the moment, trying to smooth over the rough patches if he can do it without getting in an argument, and playing bartender for everyone. From time to time his temper frays and he barks back, but he’s long since ceded any authority he might have had in hopes of a quiet life.

Although he and Agnes are comfortable together, there’s a distance between them. They lost a child many years ago, and a pervading stiff-upper-lip sadness pervades the household. Actual couple King and Grantham, who were with Aurora at the very beginning, are superb in the roles. When Tobias finally expresses himself later in the play, it’s absolutely stunning.

The house is about to get a lot fuller of welcome but not quite wanted guests. First they learn their adult but not really grown-up daughter Julia is coming home in her latest in a string of divorces. But before she gets there, their best friends show up on their doorstep out of the blue. Agnes and Tobias are perplexed to see them because they don’t normally come over if they don’t have plans, but they invite their friends in and try to make them comfortable.

After much hemming and hawing and many interruptions, the other couple explains that they were at home and suddenly became frightened, so they couldn’t stay at their house. Couldn’t and still can’t; whatever this nameless dread is, it hasn’t gone away, and Harry and Edna seem to fully expect that they’re just going to move in because they can’t bear to go home.

They’re slightly embarrassed but unapologetic and seemingly impervious to the idea that they might be imposing, which raises all sorts of questions about the nature and limits of friendship. “This is what you have meant by friendship, is it not?” Edna says as a sort of challenge. Anne Darragh’s Edna is brittle, prim and judgmental, while Charles Dean’s Harry is pleasant, hapless and lost in thought, and his interactions with Tobias are particularly powerful.

Fresh off another Albee play, Tiny Alice at Marin Theatre Company, Carrie Paff is very funny in the thinnest part, the near hysterical Julia, who can’t stand that her parents are coddling their friends instead of babying her.

It’s unmistakably an Albee play, packed with wounding wit, cringeworthy behavior, and people picking apart each other’s choice of words—and with a great absurdity at the heart of the plot—but it’s also interestingly Chekhovian in mood, particularly at the end.

Trish Mulholland and Catherine Castellanos in Phaedra. Photo by Pak Han.

The family in Shotgun’s Phaedra has an awfully good reason to be unhappy: The wife is in love with her son-in-law, and what she does when he rejects her—well, it’s not good. The tale from ancient Greek mythology has been made into plays over the centuries by Euripides, Seneca, Racine, even Eugene O’Neill.

Shotgun’s version is commissioned from formerly Bay Area-based Canadian playwright Adam Bock, who has a long history with the company (Swimming in the Shallows, A Fairy’s Tale, The Typographer’s Dream, The Shaker Chair).

Although set in the present day, Bock’s Phaedra is a strikingly effective distillation of the original story, while still taking it in new directions. And while the staging by Rose Riordan of Portland Center Stage doesn’t rush things and takes its time, it’s much brisker and more dynamic than ACT’s too-stately production of Racine’s Phèdre in a new translation last year.

Paulie is a recovering drug addict fresh out of jail, staying with his family as a condition of his parole.  Whereas the husband, the Greek hero Theseus, is off adventuring somewhere in the original story, believed possibly dead, here Paulie’s father Antonio is around, just preoccupied with his work. He’s a high-ranking judge of some kind, and his constant grousing about what credulous bleeding hearts his colleagues are helps establish him as given to harsh, uncompromising and unreflective judgments.

Valera Coble’s costumes for the Phaedra character Catherine always match the austere, empty white and brown walls of Nina Ball’s palatial two-level living room set. Hannah Birch Carl’s sound design is full of dramatic, echoing ocean sounds (dunno why, although Poseidon made his hand felt in other versions of this story), ticking clocks, and eerie music as if played on water-filled glasses. Clouds slowly pass through the house in lighting designer Lucas Krech’s projections. I’m not sure what all this signifies, but it certainly adds to the sense of unrest and suspense.

The cast is terrific, made up of sharp local actors who haven’t played Shotgun before, with the exception of company member Trish Mulholland.

Catherine Castellanos 
is stunning as Catherine, deeply fretful and preoccupied in a way that comes off as sour harshness. She likes things to keep things orderly, which means a near-obsession with coasters. Catherine complains that she doesn’t want Paulie there because he’s a troublemaker. “It’s never been fine before,” she says. “I don’t know why everyone thinks it’ll be fine this time.” But while at first she seems like the spiteful stepmother, as the play goes on and her wounded heart reveals itself, she’s transfixing in her rawness. One unexpected moment of hopeful self-delusion is just chilling. In a stunningly effective scene she leafs through a magazine for a long time while staring hauntingly out into the middle distance, not even glancing at the pages.

Patrick Alparone
 gives a touching performance as the rumpled Paulie, the only character whose name is close to its mythological counterpart, Hippolytus. Although he retains some bad-boy furtiveness, he’s very serious and sincere about his recovery and following the rules. In fact his desire not to screw up again borders on desperation, because he feels this is his last chance, and he’s not wrong.

Keith Burkland is a bit stiff as Antonio, but in a way that suits the character—crusty, hunched and bewildered. He’s basically a jerk who doesn’t believe in growth or redemption but that some people are just born bad, which is a terrible thing in a judge.

Mulholland is amusingly inane as the cheery, nattering maid Olibia, who dotes on Paulie. As Taylor, Paulie’s new girlfriend whom he met in rehab, Cindy Im
 has a wonderful don’t-give-a-fuck casualness that may not be meant as a provocation, but she doesn’t care if it’s taken that way.

Some of the direct-address monologues each character gets (except Paulie, unless I’m forgetting something) feel extraneous and tangential to the story, but others are remarkably effective. Bock has a wonderful flair for poetic language that he balances nicely with more plain-spoken dialogue. Olibia acts as a sad and sober Greek chorus in her introduction, saying (if I have this correctly), “In a moment she didn’t notice was a moment, Catherine made a choice she didn’t notice was a choice.”

It’s a very intense, dramatic tragedy, with moments of humor but worlds away from comedy. The line that got the biggest laugh opening night isn’t funny so much as shocking, coming at a moment when the audience most needs release. And that’s the funny thing about Greek tragedy, even updated to a modern setting—that it can make even the tragic black comedy of Albee seem hopeful by comparison. There’s something to be said for accepting your unhappiness and carrying on, when the alternative is hurtling headlong toward your doom knowing that’s exactly what you’re doing. That’s why Catherine’s domestic woes echo with more than two thousand years’ worth of resonance.

A Delicate Balance
Through October 23
Aurora Theatre Company
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Through October 30
Ashby Stage
1901 Ashby Ave.
Berkeley, CA

A Delicate Balance: Show #87 of 2011, attended September 13.

Phaedre: Show #91 of 2011, attended September 24.

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