Broadway actor Kathleen Chalfant is terrified. Starting Friday, she will take on the role of Agnes in Edward Albees Pulitzer Prize-winning play, A Delicate Balance, at Arena Stage.
Agnes considers herself the fulcrum that balances the dynamics in her family. This is one of the greatest parts in American theaters, Chalfant said. And you cant even think about doing it without thinking about the giants who are filling up the landscape of the history of the play.
Among those giants was Hollywood icon Katharine Hepburn, who played Agnes in the 1973 movie version directed by Tony Richardson.
I hope to live up to the standard. I hope I can do an acceptable job of it, Chalfant said.
A Delicate Balance is a story about a retired couple Agnes and Tobias whose lives became more complicated by Agnes alcoholic sister, Claire, who lives with them; their only daughter, Julia, who comes home after a fourth failed marriage; and friends Harry and Edna, who move in with them without warning.
Chalfant admitted she is a control freak, like Agnes, who runs the house and holds it all together for better or worse. Anyone whos been a wife and a mother with children in the house will have the same feelings with Agnes, she said.
Chalfant, 64, has been acting since she was 7. She was in the Broadway productions of Wit and Angels in America, which earned her a Tony award and Drama Desk nominations. But for the first time in her career, she confessed to reading the script of Delicate for a month to prepare for the role. Every morning I woke up and thats the first thing I did, she said.
In the theater, the text is primary and our job is to make the writers meaning manifest … illuminate and bring alive the play that the writer meant to write or meant for the audience to see, Chalfant said.
Another factor about Delicate that Chalfant found daunting was the presence of Edward Albee, 80, at the first three days of rehearsals. Albee wrote Delicate in 1966 and won a Pulitzer for it in 1967. He won two more Pulitzers for Seascape in 1974 and Three Tall Women in 1991. He also could have won a Pulitzer for Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1963 if not for the plays profanity and sexual themes.
Hes one of my favorite writers. He writes like a poet. The meaning is carried almost as much in the rhythm as in the words itself. You want to please him. He is a consummate man of the theater, Chalfant said.
The play opens in the couples suburban living room with Agnes thinking aloud about how it would feel to go mad. She believes that the chances of one going mad are unlikely if shes entertaining the possibility. She thinks, though, that going mad would free her of everything. Tobias assures her that she is the sanest person he knows.
Director Pam Mackinnon said Arenas revival of Delicate was very loyal to the script. I work a lot with Edward Albee, and part of what I pride myself in my work with him is really trying to get into the deep fabric of the playwrights play and really work on illuminating his intent. Its not about me putting a spin on a great play that does not need my help.
Mackinnon has also directed a number of other Albee plays: the premiers of Occupant and Peter and Jerry as well as The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia and The Play About the Baby.
Mackinnon said Albee approved the cast selection. Playing Tobias is Terry Beaver, who was in Inherit the Wind, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, Democracy and Twentieth Century on Broadway.
Carla Harting, who last appeared at Arena in Sarah Ruhls Passion Play, is playing Julia. The role of Claire goes to Ellen McLaughlin, who also appeared in Angels in America on Broadway. McLaughlin is also an award-winning playwright, whose works have been produced off-Broadway.
Playing Edna and Harry are Helen Hedman and James Slaughter, respectively. Both have performed in Arena Stage.
Staging Delicate, which will run through March 15 at 1800 Bell Street in Crystal City, was nothing new to Arena. It featured the play in its 1981-82 season.
Associate Artistic Director David Dower said Arena has chosen to feature Delicate after consulting with some accomplished stage actors, including Chalfant, in November 2006. She said shed go anywhere to play A Delicate Balance, he said.
Dower said it is also part of Arenas focus on presenting American classics, premieres of new plays and contemporary stories.
Artistic Director Molly Smith said Delicate was still as relevant today. Albee is fearless about writing stories that get us in the solar plexus, and he does so with his brilliant wit, dynamic storytelling and rigorous use of language, she said.