As a theater director, Joan M. Lyons isn’t one to choose the easy way out. That’s evident with just a quick glance at the plays she has produced for Center Stage at the Southampton Cultural Center in recent years, including “The Money Shot” and “Reasons to be Pretty,” two offerings by playwright Neil LaBute who is known for his controversial and frequently difficult subject matter.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that with her upcoming directorial offering at SCC, Lyons has, once again, taken the path of most resistance. This time, it’s not a LaBute script that is occupying her every waking hour, but rather Edward Albee’s play “A Delicate Balance,” which won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a Drama Desk Award and three Tonys.
The play is set in the upscale abode of Agnes and Tobias, a wealthy and somewhat unhappy middle-aged couple who share their home with Agnes’s alcoholic sister, Claire. The fragile equilibrium of their lives is thrown into disarray when the couple’s friends, Harry and Edna, show up unannounced for an extended stay, citing an unnamed fear that has driven them from their own home. Hot on their heels comes Agnes and Tobias’s 36-year-old daughter, Julia, who is looking to reclaim her childhood bedroom following the collapse of her fourth marriage. Julia’s arrival on her parents’ doorstep further upsets the delicate balance of the increasingly crowded household.
The SCC production opens Friday, January 10, and in a recent interview at the theater, Lyons took a break from painting the set to talk about the play and how this production came about. It all began several years ago, she explained, when she took an acting class led by Bay Street Theater co-founder Steve Hamilton who assigned Lyons and fellow student April Schiavoni a scene from “A Delicate Balance.”
“In an acting class, you’re handed a scene and may not know the piece, but you have to take whatever’s given you and make it work. That’s the interesting part,” said Lyons, who in addition to directing has also acted in several Center Stage productions. “We worked on it and had so much fun, we did another round of classes and worked on it again.
“I played Agnes and she played Julia, the daughter,” said Lyons,. “We did our own blocking and readings with Steve … I’ve always wanted to do this play.”
Getting the rights to the play didn’t come easy. After several requests and denials to produce the show, Lyons finally succeeded this time around. That’s when the reality of it all set in.
“I started working on it and I thought ‘What have I done?’” she laughed. “It’s three acts, long and there is a lot of dialogue.”
Though the SCC production will be presented in just two acts, because of the intricacies inherent in the script, Lyons said she has spent a good deal of time pulling apart the dialogue and analyzing its meaning with the cast.
“There’s something in Act I that repeats in Act II that the audience doesn’t recognize but we as a cast do,” she said.
In approaching any show as a director, Lyons said she tries to read as many of the playwright’s other works as possible to gauge his or her overall sensibilities. Though she found that with Albee, each of his works is entirely distinct, in his most famous play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” she recognized characters who are well-educated and highly dysfunctional, much like those in “A Delicate Balance.”
“For this play, I got the sense it was autobiographical and based on his family,” said Lyons. “Albee was adopted into a well-to-do family in New York. Agnes is based on his mother and Claire is a based on an aunt of his.
“He didn’t feel he had a very good upbringing, like the typical playwright.”
The play is also very much a reflection of its era and it evokes a time in the 1960s when middle-aged couples were often reluctant to speak their minds by directly addressing unpleasant subjects in polite company. Never mind if the company has moved in because a vague fear has driven them from their own home, per the dance going on in the delicate balance between Agnes and Tobias and their friends.
“It’s very upper-crust waspy New England and there are things you do or don’t do,” said Lyons. “You don’t say too much for fear of looking in the mirror. So much slips by.”
“In one of the main scenes in Act III, Agnes and Tobias talk about a catalyst that affected how their marriage turned out,” she added, “and it’s the first time they’ve ever talked about it.”
That sort of dynamic, of course, leaves plenty of room for subtext, and like any good play, there is plenty in this script that is not spelled out for the audience. With that in mind, Lyons feels all six characters in the play have at least one thing in common — a disappointment in life that is reflected in their behavior, from Claire’s alcoholism to the mysterious, unnamed terror that brings Harry and Edna to Agnes and Tobias’s front door.
“I think it’s about lost opportunity … all the characters have suffered loss,” said Lyons, “Julia is home after her fourth marriage is on the rocks. Agnes and Tobias lost a relationship they wanted do have. Claire has lost her opportunity to be something.”
While many aspects of the relationship between the characters are revealed, others remain sealed permanently away. While there are no firm answers to be had, when asked if she believes Agnes and Tobias will remain friends with Harry and Edna after the final curtain falls, Lyons said, “They sweep everything under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist, so I think they will be friends. But it will be back on the surface with no more honest conversations.”
For her part, while Lyons admits she was initially somewhat intimidated about taking on “A Delicate Balance,” now that she has taken the journey and the curtain is set to rise, she’s very much ready for the show to go on.
“I think a very sophisticated theater goer will love it, but I think there’s so much in it for everybody,” she said. “‘The Money Shot’ had very explicit language and was contemporary, and even with ‘Reasons to be Pretty,’ you had to have an audience in mind it would play to.
“But this cuts across the board … I think it’s one of those things where people will keep coming back.”
Center Stage at Southampton Cultural Center presents Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” from Friday, January 10 through Sunday, January 26, at SCC’s Levitas Center for the Arts, 25 Pond Lane, Southampton. Shows are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. The play features Bonnie Grice (Agnes), John Leonard (Tobias), Joanna Mincarelli (Edna), Tamara Salkin (Julia), Kristin Whiting (Claire) and Scott Wilson (Harry). General admission is $25. Brunch and dinner theater packages are available at five local restaurants. Learn more at scc-arts.org or 631-287-4377. Reservations are encouraged.