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Curtain Call
West Coast Players delivers dark, witty, unnerving social drama
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Photo by DON SAVEL/WEST COAST PLAYERS
From left, Janice Creneti, Dennis Winchester and Alicia Jiracek star in Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance,” running through Oct. 11, at West Coast Players.
CLEARWATER – West Coast Players always find a way to shake things up. In the second production of its 2015-16 season, the theater takes on Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama of 1966, a thinly veiled critique of the American middle class.

West Coast Players skillfully executes this tale about existential malaise and dysfunction in suburbia.

“A Delicate Balance,” by Edward Albee, runs through Oct. 11, at West Coast Players, 21905 U.S. 19 N., Clearwater. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; and Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets are $19. Call 437-2363 or visit www.w­cplay­ers.o­rg.

In “A Delicate Balance,” a well-to-do middle-aged couple finds their lives upended by home invasion – that is, the arrival of unexpected guests.

Even before the first performer arrives on the stage, an ambiance settles over the theater driven by the meticulously appointed set. Superficially, it’s a simplistic backdrop, designed to render the attractive suburban home of an upper middle class family. Looking closer, though, something else becomes evident: in its uncluttered, color-coordinated perfection, the space hardly seems lived in. It’s more reflective of a museum display, meant to freeze a moment in time.

That’s exactly the kind of life that the owners of this home – Tobias and Agnes – seem to be living: Frozen in their complacency.

That changes with the arrival of some refugees from life. Agnes’ sister Claire is part of the household from the beginning: She’s disruptive and antagonistic, but her frankness seems to provide the reality check that keeps the family from resorting to physical violence. Next, it’s daughter Julia on the doorstep, heading home from her fourth failed marriage. Her appearance initiates what has apparently become an established sequence of indictments, criticisms and eventual solace.

Finally, Harry and Edna skulk through the front door, demanding safe haven in the home of their closest friends, Tobias and Agnes. It seems they have been driven from their own home by some nameless fear. This final intrusion is enough to bring an end to the equilibrium of the household as family members begin to quarrel amongst themselves – and, for the first time in forever, their vicious attacks begin to inflict some damage.

Directed by Linda Woodruff Weir, West Coast Players’ production of “A Delicate Balance” finds its own perfect balance between dark comedy and drama.

“Sometimes Edward Albee’s work is difficult to understand, is tough to sit through, but somehow you end up admiring the brilliance of his words, the wonderful dialogue he writes for these very off-putting characters,” Weir writes in her notes. “We absolutely admire Albee’s work and have enjoyed bringing these amazing and tragic figures to life. I realize this is Edward Albee, but this play is really funny, too.”

Weir is right, and her cast captures the cynical humor of this play perfectly.

Janice Creneti, who portrays Claire, is a prime example. Her snarky, flawlessly delivered sarcasm and spiteful mocking mercifully provide intermittent breaks from the tension. Sadra Bostick animates Julia with ample egotism and exposes the character’s lingering spoiled-brat attitude.

Tom Costello and Colleen Coughenour play Tobias and Agnes. Coughenour is brutally domineering – though all that tyranny is uttered on a voice that is deceivingly calm and unruffled. Her insults and slights are eloquently articulated. Costello’s Tobias initially squirms beneath the heel of Agnes. His portrayal is keenly restrained, holding the character’s volatile emotions in check until the point of eruption.

Costello and Coughenour both manage to convey the most important aspect of their characters: Agnes and Tobias have a developed a kind of existential paralysis.

A houseful of asylum-seekers awakens in Tobias an acknowledgment of his purposelessness. In particular, Harry and Edna – portrayed by Dennis Winchester and Alicia Jiracek – force Tobias into evaluating his existence. Winchester and Jiracek take on challenging roles and deliver. They inject into the household a plague of disquiet and discord. Their very presence is inexplicably unsettling, and their assumed privileges are a catalyst that induces an unbalanced response.

In bringing “A Delicate Balance” to the stage, West Coast Players successfully captures Albee’s bleak yet often amusing analysis of a comfortable existence in which individuals are compelled to embrace monotony and uniformity and avoid the perils of the variation and spontaneity.
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