Edward Albee is not for the faint of heart. You would not take in a matinee of his, expecting a light and frothy afternoon. What you will get is a beautifully crafted peek into the human spirit. Those spirits are fighting for their lives in The Lady From Dubuque (Signature Theatre.)
Set in a suburban home, the play takes place over the course of one night and the following day. The play (directed by David Esbjornson) opens on three couples playing a party game that involves the (oft repeated) phrase; “Who am I?” The hosts Sam (Michael Hayden) and Jo (Laila Robins) bear a passing resemblance to another Albee couple; George and Martha. In this case however, Sam is weakened by the kryptonite of his wife’s terminal disease. Jo is biting, but not nearly to the degree to which she is entitled. Their friends are mostly silly. Edgar (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Lucinda (Catherine Curtin) are that special blend of vapid and shrill that makes some people phobic of the suburbs. Fred (C.J. Wilson) and his girlfriend (Tricia Paoloccio) are at least interesting by virtue of his vulgarity and her preening. There’s a reason these people all drink.
A bit past the midway of the first act, Jo rapidly deteriorates in (literal) gut wrenching pain. It is difficult to watch the exquisite portrayal. When Edgar demands that Jo, writhing in agony on the floor, get up and go apologize to his wife, Lucinda for an insult, it is almost too much to witness. But then he points out what is so true it can not be discounted; his wife did not cause Jo’s pain, but Jo had caused Lucinda’s. As Jo struggles to her feet, she is living rather than dying. It is her last act of physicality. The first act ends with a cresendo of agonizing wails and the appearance of an otherworldly figure; Elizabeth (Jane Alexander) and a dashing escort; Oscar (Peter Francis James.)
The tone of the second act is decidedly more physical, combative and high stakes. Sam is frightened by the arrival of Elizabeth, who claims to be Jo’s mother. His hysteria heightens and results in him being restrained (and ‘put to sleep’ with a strategic touch by Oscar.) While he cannot articulate it, Sam knows who these people really are and why they are there. The reality of death is simply far too painful for him to realize.
The rhythm and banter of Albee’s dialogue is a perfect conduit for this allegory. His characters are so raw and real they create a platform for the surrealism that could feel forced or twee. This play was not well received in 1980. Death rarely is. The only sticking point, for this audience member, was the treatment of race. Much is made of Oscar’s “blackness” and the transition from superfluous racial humor to minstrel is rapid and unpleasant. No doubt there is a dramatic intent, it just alluded me.
This is a flawless and beautiful production and should be seen by many.