Arts & Culture » Performing Arts

THE WAR AT HOME

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;A few weeks ago, I was hit with a sudden (and thankfully short-lived) bout of night terrors. I don't know what was worse: the clammy dread that kept forcing a 41-year-old man to sleep with some sort of light on, or the realization that such a debilitating condition could come on at any time and stick around for as long as it pleased.

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;;Some fears are enduring, irrational things you only think you outgrow, while others are logical responses that quickly fade into innocuousness. The perpetual friction between the two lends an up/down feel to Mad Cow Theatre's production of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance. A Pulitzer winner in 1967, the play is steeped in era-specific unease. Its script includes references to a youth culture fed on pot and to the scandalous topless bathing suit designed by Rudi Gernreich. Such mentions — which, as director Bobbie Bell pointed out after a recent performance, a troupe is forbidden to alter or excise — lend the play an automatic museum-piece quality. Here, they're at cross-purposes with Nicole Bartet's constructively ambiguous set and costume designs. (In the living room as on the runway, thankfully, 1967 looks a lot like now.) What keeps the work relevant is its keen sense of a larger, free-floating angst that knows no particular age or epoch.

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;The play's first act largely chronicles the bickering between suburban martinet Agnes (Peg O'Keef), her emotionally withdrawn husband, Tobias (Kristian Truelsen), and her derisive younger sister, Claire (Jamie Middleton). Living under the same roof, they argue and obsess over almost everything, greasing their pet grievances with alcohol until they can't tell the difference between the vital and the trivial. When we meet Agnes, she's morbidly speculating that she may one day go mad; "You should take drugs, my dear," Tobias lightly suggests, by way of a coping measure. Claire, a barefooted, peasant-skirted hedonist, is also an AA dropout and a constant embarrassment to her hated sister. What they have in common are tongues as eloquent as they are sharp. This is a family of chronic overenunciators who condemn each other with enough stagy literacy to warrant a "Danger! Angry intellectuals!" warning in the printed program.

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;The spewing of that florid venom poses its own dilemma. When Albee wrote plays like Balance and his classic Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the suggestion that violent dysfunction lurked behind the veneer of social respectability was truly shocking. Now, it'd be a creative risk to suggest that a well-off household wasn't a hornet's nest of bitter recrimination. (Some of the younger theatergoers I sat with were visibly stymied, perhaps wondering why their professors had mandated attendance at such an ordinary spectacle when they could have gone home and watched their parents.)

;;Twentieth-century anxiety has effected a commensurate tartness in Julia (Babette Wagner), Tobias and Agnes' daughter, who is headed home after her fourth busted marriage. When she gets there, the production's undervaried hysteria becomes distressingly apparent. O'Keef is a nimble portrayer of characters like the fiercely orating Agnes, who talks in the presence of others but not necessarily to them. Wagner endows Julia with the same quality, and it's certainly conceivable that she would sound like a carbon copy of her mother, given that an apple doesn't fall far from the tree. A tree sometimes bends in response to a superior force, however, which is why it's unfortunate that Middleton's approach to her own character's vocal delivery is to attempt to out-harridan O'Keef at every turn. Amid the monochromatic shouting, Truelsen's quiescent Tobias — who has dealt with past tragedy by becoming a virtual nonentity in his own home — is a substantial relief.

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;The unexpected arrival of family friends Harry (Alan Sincic) and Edna (Darlin Barry) poses the greatest dramatic possibilities, and not just because somebody might actually use a contraction. Harry and Edna, who show up expecting sanctuary of no specified duration, fled their own digs for a reason that's simultaneously believable and absurd: They got scared. Not of anything they can name — but frightened like little children lost in the woods in a Grimm fairy tale. There's more going on here than the territorial indignation Julia exhibits when she has to surrender her room to her evacuee godparents; we're forced to focus on the ability of sinister, barely comprehensible forces to reduce sensible adults to quivering mounds of Jell-O.

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It's sinister indeed the way Bell, Bartet and lighting designer Erin Miner conspire to position the actors in front of rectangular panels that are periodically illuminated in rich hues of (predominantly) red, orange and yellow. In an audience talkback that followed the performance I saw, director Bell revealed something he had heretofore kept secret from his cast: Those lighting changes are meant to correspond to the color-coded threat levels instituted by the U.S. government in the wake of Sept. 11. The equation of houseguests with invading jihadists is wonderfully snarky — and almost as fascinating as the possibility that audiences, who have memorized those danger codes through incessant repetition, are experiencing the proscribed apprehensions without giving it a conscious thought. Therein hangs the true longevity of skin-crawlers like Balance: Every time fear looks to be going out of style, some master manipulator finds a way to give it a whole new shade.

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A DELICATE BALANCE
;Through Sunday, June 4
;Mad Cow Theater
;$24

;; sschneider@orlandoweekly.com

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