Skip to main content

A Delicate Balance.Cylla von Tiedemann

Is it wrong to be attending a play at Soulpepper? With the theatre company and former artistic director Albert Schultz facing multimillion-dollar lawsuits over alleged sexual harassment, that question must be on the minds of many Soulpepper patrons. The company itself has already anticipated our revulsion by pulling the plug on its planned first show of 2018, a revival of Amadeus – a play about oversexed artists and manipulative mentors that would have been grossly inappropriate even it wasn't directed by Schultz.

But Soulpepper is more than Schultz, even if he loomed large over it and – credit where it's due – was instrumental in building it into one of Canada's most successful and ambitious public theatres. In fact, Soulpepper was collectively founded and has always felt like a family of theatre artists, some of them the best in the country. We know how many of them feel about the accusations against their company and Schultz; they have signed an open letter condemning the alleged behaviour and declaring solidarity with the four actresses who launched the suits.

So there should be no qualms about seeing A Delicate Balance, originally the second of the two Soulpepper productions slated for this month, which has gone ahead and opened the company's winter season. Schultz's involvement in the show was limited to programming it, and it has no content that could be inadvertently offensive.

If anything, this revival of Edward Albee's 1966 play is a reminder of what we've come to value in Soulpepper over the years: well-crafted, skillfully acted productions of the classics. It is also, as it happens, a play about family and, as the title suggests, the careful calibrations required to keep it from coming apart.

Agnes (Nancy Palk) and Tobias (Oliver Dennis) are an affluent older couple whose peaceful retirement in suburbia is spoiled only by the friction between Agnes and her alcoholic sister, Claire (Brenda Robins), who lives with them. But in the course of a weekend they are descended upon both by their whiny adult daughter and, more disturbingly, by their terrified best friends.

The daughter, Julia (Laura Condlln), is fleeing her fourth failed marriage and has come home again to lick her wounds. To her dismay, her childhood bedroom is already occupied by Harry (Derek Boyes) and Edna (Kyra Harper), who arrived unannounced the previous evening, driven from their home by a sudden, inexplicable fear.

That fear imparts an eerie, existential strain to the play – signalled here in John Gzowski's sound design by an ominous, near-subliminal throb, but otherwise de-emphasized in director Diana Leblanc's staging. Her focus is on Albee's scalpel-sharp comedy, which dissects repressed WASP civility as precisely as his Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? exposed marital savagery.

Palk is outstanding as Agnes, the brains of the household, whose crystalline thought processes are expressed in sentences that are almost Proustian in their sinuous digressions and overarching logic. As she makes clear, she is the one who maintains the family's equilibrium, but it's up to her habitually passive husband to restore it.

Dennis brings his likable demeanour – and his long-time reputation as Soulpepper's funniest actor – to the part of Tobias. It's occasionally a liability, notably in Tobias's troubling anecdote about having a pet cat killed. As Dennis recounts it, we're not sure if it's meant to be humorous and it falls flat. Ultimately, though, he rises to the role's dramatic challenges, especially in his climactic confrontation with Boyes's Harry.

A moody Condlln is perfect as Julia, who reverts to a petulant child with her parents and ends up causing a scene. Robins is fun as a brassy, dishevelled Claire, part self-aware life of the party, part caustic commentator from the sidelines, whose rapport with Tobias provokes Agnes's jealousy. But she makes Claire's sometimes silly attempts at levity seem even more strenuous than necessary.

Harper and Boyes don't fully convey Edna and Harry's initial terror, but they do an amusing job of capturing the absurd nonchalance with which the couple begin to make themselves at home.

A Delicate Balance won the late Albee the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes, and its influence continues to be felt in contemporary plays of domestic unease such as Stephen Karam's The Humans (shortly to be seen at Canadian Stage). That said, it has never quite worked for me, in this or previous productions. But watching it at the Young Centre after this past month's revelations, its theme did take on a new and unexpected meaning. Soulpepper, too, is a family in crisis, where the balance – between good art and a safe work environment – needs to be restored.

A Delicate Balance continues to Feb. 10 (

'The Komagata Maru Incident' tells the story of a ship full of Indian passengers turned away from Vancouver in 1914. The play opens at the Stratford Festival on Saturday.

The Canadian Press