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Who’s Afraid in ‘A Delicate Balance’?

Broadway actor Kathleen Chalfant is terrified. Starting Friday, she will take on the role of Agnes in Edward Albee’s 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 can’t 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 who’s 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 that’s the first thing I did,” she said.

“In the theater, the text is primary and our job is to make the writer’s 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 “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in 1963 if not for the play’s profanity and sexual themes.

“He’s 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 couple’s 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 she’s 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 Arena’s 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 playwright’s play and really work on illuminating his intent. It’s 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 Ruhl’s “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 she’d go anywhere to play ‘A Delicate Balance,’” he said.

Dower said it is also part of Arena’s 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.

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