Truly a Delicate Balance

I saw the Aurora Theatre Company’s production of Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Edward Albee “A Delicate Balance” and highly recommend it. (It has been extended till October 23, 2011.) The play is deeply psychological. Although somewhat dark, it is not only movingly performed by a superb cast, but it also features incredible writing by one of our modern masters. And it is immensely though provoking.

In the introduction to the play from the theatre’s Artistic Director, Tom Ross offers a quotation that very much describes the theme of the play: “…Albee says that the delicate balance in the play is ‘between what we should be doing and what we ultimately decide we need to do to protect ourselves.’” It is indeed a play about protection. And the protection that most of the characters seek in one way or another is that offered by forgetting. As if to forget is not to know and a way to spare oneself of life’s hardships and miseries. It is as if one had not experienced those misfortunes.

There are various ways of not remembering that are explored in the play. There are those characters who blot out memory through excessive use of alcohol. There is the intimation that for one character he acted through an extramarital affair to escape reality and the memory of something tragic. And there is for the lead female character the way of not remembering by forcing herself and those around her to abandon emotions and live a superficial and prescribed life. This character controls herself and others. Sh offers little warmth to others nor allows herself any. There are few feelings she or anyone can have.

At the center of the play is a tragic loss that the family has experienced. But we in the audience do not know if these characters have selected these means of coping in response to this loss. In fact, I doubt it. Rather, I have the sense that for each, they have been endeavoring to escape life’s suffering for some time. Sadly, it seems that these characters, even the youngest among them, have been beaten down by life. And the “protections” that they employ only serve to isolate them further.

As I said, the play is deeply psychological. When I work with people in psychotherapy, we often examine the ways that they “cope” with life’s ills. We see the ways that they “protect” themselves (sometimes in similar ways as Albee’s characters). And together we endeavor to create or reinforce another way to cope: through relationship. By fostering the relationships that my client and I have, and by encouraging building and strengthening other intimate relationships, we are together strengthening a system that can work a lot better than these other solutions.

Albee has starkly illustrated that life is a delicate balance. There are life experiences that become overwhelming, that feel as if they are too much to bear (certainly alone). What his play leaves out is the rest of life: the joys and rewards. And how, particularly through human relationship, people can weather the storms and maintain that fragile balance.

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