Saturday, January 20, 2007

Play: Half an Oeuvre is Better than None

The Lady From Dubuque by Edward Albee, Directed by David Esbjornson, Seattle Repertory Theatre, though February 10, 2007

Some playwrights you steel yourself for, going in. If the work is by David Mamet, you expect the rapidfire profanity. If its August Wilson, there is often (though not always) a moment of rage that leaves you wondering if you had missed a clue earlier. Shaw? Class warfare and other big issues crowding characterization to the margins. And with Albee, you are resigned to casual cruelty among the players and ruminations of the "modern condition". It's his bag, his thing, his body of work.

And yes, you have all that in Lady from Dubuque, but for the first half of the play, he pulls it off and pulls it off brilliantly. A mixed bag of friends, by turns kind and cruel, spend an evening together primarily because they have always spent evenings together, such that their offensiveness no longer registers. All are a bundle of strengths and vulnerabilities. Jo is catty and nasty and dying and sympathetic and sweet. Her husband Sam is by turns supportive and enraged that he cannot feel her pain, that she is in a dimension that he cannot reach. Neighbor Edgar returns for regular abuse because it is one of the few places where he can stand up to his dominating domestic wife, Lucinda. Self-proclaimed redneck Fred has gone through three wives already and is introducing potential number four, Carol, self-proclaimed dumb brunette, to the civil little weekly war the group holds at Jo and Sam's.

And yes, they are all horrible and wonderful to each other in turns, both rejecting each other and needing each other for support. Carla Harting in particular is brilliant as Jo, her callow toughness and frightened vulnerability flipping past effortlessly. The group breaks up in several arguments and reconciliations. These people are struggling with each other and struggling with Jo's impending death - the elephant in the room. It is really, really good. The characters are well-rounded, and the actors bring their personalities across as real.

Then, in the closing moments of the first act, two strangers arrive, looking for Jo, and we go to the intermission with odd questions. And when we come back for the second act things go off the rails a bit.

The strangers, Elizabeth and Oscar are either angels of death or compassionate murderers, come to take Jo away. It is all a bit fuzzy, and from this point on no question is ever answered directly. Elizabeth claims to be Jo's mother, and all of the rest of the cast except Sam, accepts this without question, even to point of arguing with Sam (who knows the truth) and restraining him. Jo, who shines in the first act, is reduced to an deathly object in the second, and all the friends who moved off the stage at the end of Act I now come back, but now are even more brittle and hard edged. There is no support here from them, only hate. They begin to drift into Albee-esque caricatures - returning because it would be a shame to have them in the first act and not use them again.

Part of the problem between the two acts is that Jo dominates the first act, but Elizabeth (Myra Carter), who confounds Sam, is a very different creature. Her performance is mannered and precise and theatrical, and undercuts the reality of the disease that is claiming Jo (that Ms. Harting sells so well). Similarly, the first act is peppered with fourth-wall breaking antics (where the other actors join in, calling on the audience to play referee to their private mindgames), but with the addition of a second strangeness (what is the power of these visitors, such that they can not be made to leave?), it suddenly vacates as well. It is two very different beasts, and the second is not a good as the first.

Yet I really enjoyed the play. The pain of not being able to share a loved one's pain comes through, the loneliness of death and the shallowness of live in the face of mortality comes through. Carla Harting as Jo and Chelsey Rives as Carol are wonderful, and indeed, Rives' character has to carry the play forward to its denouement because Jo is dying, Elizabeth is an enigma, and Sam is shattered. And she does it very, very well.

So it is a mixed bag. The first half is a great play. The second half, less so. Its worth seeing, but yes, it feels like an Albee play all over.

More later,