Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” Presented by Theatre 9/12

If you are familiar with Theatre 9/12, you expect finely honed acting in their productions, all directed by Charles Waxberg. Your expectations will be fulfilled in this their newest offering, played in the round, with audience seated on the same level as the stage and in most cases within just a few feet of the actors. You are so close you almost feel like invisible houseguests eavesdropping on the very private lives of the well-to-do couple around which the action centers.

And oh the angst, or is it anomie? Agnes is adrift, and dutiful Tobias is ineffectual. Liquor, the elixir that makes life possible, is plentiful. In comes Claire the “recovering” alcoholic sister who lives with them and whom Agnes seems to despise. Then, oh, good lord, word is received that daughter Julia’s fourth marriage has just crashed and she’s on her way home. It’s just another of Albee’s happy families.

And these problem relationships are only the beginning? Suddenly, good friends Harry and Julia show up with suitcases. Some noxious but unnamed horror brings them here, and, evidently, they plan to stay, much to the astonishment of the dumbfounded Agnes and Tobias. This calls for another drink though that does nothing to stop the flow of newts and toads pouring from many mouths as this privileged family fails to find its balance.

All the actors are in good form, as I said, but a few deserve special mention. Terry Edward Moore’s Tobias is a man with no balls. He’s excellent at mixing drinks but powerless to make decisions. Moore creates a somewhat pathetic but affable guy. Then near the end of the play, all the energies he’s kept so carefully under control explode. It’s fascinating to watch this transformation. Therese Diekhans (Agnes) and Mary Murfin Bayley (Claire) like two fencers slash and swipe at each other with malice. Agnes does it with controlled fury, Claire with no holds barred. Again, it’s a delight to watch the two spar, ugly though their encounters are.

Another star is Paul O’Connell’s set that captures the comfort and style of the privileged. This is not the easiest space in which to produce a play. Yet he makes it work very well for this volatile production.

Through Feb. 14 at 609 8th Ave. and James St., pay what you can, www.theatre912.com.

“4000 Miles” by Amy Herzog at Arts West Playhouse

Tender! Funny! Youth collides with old, old age as 21-year-old Leo crashes at his 91-year-old Grandma’s pad (a quite lovely Manhattan rent-controlled apartment). He’s near the end of his life-altering cross country bike trip. Don’t think the young man is there to buoy up the old lady. Quite the contrary both have much to learn from the other, but young Leo clearly gains most in this encounter.

Directed by Mathew Wright, the new artistic director of ArtsWest, this affectionate and charming piece plays out on Burton Yuen’s first rate set. It’s filled with the tokens and remainders of Grandma’s long life, including a black rotary phone, something Leo probably hardly knows how to use. He comes unannounced, and once Grandma gets her teeth and hearing aid in, they can discuss why he’s there.

Surprised she is. Overjoyed she’s not. He barges in bringing the dirt of the road, possibly lice, but most of all a lifestyle unfamiliar to her. Now don’t get the idea that the old lady is bordering on dementia or slow wittedness. She’s one sharp dame, doing very well on her own, but is not quite sure what to make of the intrusion of this young man whom she hasn’t seen in some years and whose life style is not at all familiar.

What a delight to have Susan Corzatte back on a Seattle stage. Her Grandma is a prickly, sharp-tongued, no-nonsense dame who’s too old to be sloppily sentimental, but the love is right there under her curt advice and huffy responses. She and Adam Standley playing Leo are wonderful foils for one another.

Leo’s bike trip has included tragedy. It’s caused him to lose his girlfriend who happens to live in New York City, and it certainly hasn’t improved his relationship with his parents. He has no job, appears to have no direction, but he’s tech savvy, can show Grandma the wonders of Skype and the internet. Condoms and dope she tolerates, but love-making on her couch?

Standley has that “aw shucks” charm of a really nice, but somewhat naive young man who is finding his way. With Grandma’s help he certainly will.

The play was a 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist and has received other awards. This touching production captures its strengths—the insecurities of youth and the poignancy and disappointments of age—both revealed with humor. It’s another winner in Seattle’s 2015 theatre year.

Through Feb. 15, at ArtsWest Playhouse, 4711 California Ave., SW., Seattle, (206 938-0963 or www.artswest.org)

“Three Sisters” by Anton Chekhov at ACT

“It’s all awful. . . . How are we going to live through our lives, what is to become of us?” Oh, if only those three unhappy sisters could move to Moscow, life would be so much better, or so they think. As Chekhov unreels their existential angst in this play, he creates a world between hope and despair.

Director John Langs decided to mount this production of one of the Russian’s three greatest plays with a modern minimalism. On the grey stage sits a long grey table, a grey bench and grey chairs, all simple wood pieces lacking ornamentation of any kind. At various angles, stretching to the rafters are poles, mottled in the manner of birch trees.

The action begins as a single drum bangs slowly and the three sisters, followed by men in the red and blue of 19th C military attire, solemnly enter this spare setting. Only then is there dialog, and it prophetically addresses the longing for Moscow and the life of the past.

Seagull Project--Three Sisters  361 (c) Chris Bennion

Masha (Alexandra Tavares), Irina (Sydney Andrews) and Olga (Julie Briskman), the Three Sisters Photo by Chris Bennion

This is a play about ambitions thwarted, unrequited love, and lives, as some say, eroding away like rusting iron, flaking off, bit by bit. Each of the sisters has unfulfilled dreams as does their brother whose foolish mistakes impact them all. But Chekhov’s underlying message seems to be that we drag our unhappiness with us. Future? Past? Will there be any difference? It is hope that makes life worthwhile, that allows us to endure.

In this production consummate actresses play the three sisters who have such difficulty internalizing this lesson. They share unhappy lives but represent different personality types facing different varieties of unhappiness. Olga (Julie Briskman) really doesn’t want the job she has. Masha (Alexandra Tavares) doesn’t want the husband she has, and Irina (Sydney Andrews) just doesn’t want the life she has. I liked the fact that these women and their hapless brother were dressed in modern attire. Chekhov’s issues are as pertinent today as they were in the late 19th C.

Chekhov is, of course, one of the western world’s greatest playwrights, and we Seattleites should rejoice in the opportunity to see such a stunning production But be warned: this is intellectually challenging, and if you aren’t familiar with the play, consider looking it up on the Internet before you go. I don’t think you’ll be sorry.

Through Feb. 8 at Act Contemporary Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle, (206 292-7676 or acttheatre.org)

“The Piano Lesson” at Seattle Repertory Theatre

August Wilson’s decade-by-decade exploration of the African American condition in the twentieth century, “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” is one of this nation’s theatrical treasures. Its “The Piano Lesson” thrusts the audience into the 1930s, where in a Pittsburgh home bother and sister battle over the best use of their family legacy—a richly carved piano. Wilson weaves a spellbinding story, but his genius is not only in its plot. It’s evident also in the lyrical language through which he spins out his tale.

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Stephen Tyrone Williams and Erika LaVonn in The Piano Lesson. Photo: Michael Davis, Syracuse Stage.

In “The Piano Lesson” the brother, Boy Willie has come up from the South to sell the piano that is his and his sister’s joint inheritance. His reason is solid. Land has come up for sale. His half of the proceeds from the piano will give him just enough money to buy the sliver of property that he expects will allow him to become a farmer rather than a share cropper, to be a man of dignity rather than little more than a serf.

Sister Berniece in whose home the piano sits refuses to sell it. Its rich carvings depict the family history. Its rich patina was created with the actual blood and sweat of their mother and other ancestors. It was entrusted to their care so that future generations of the family remember and honor the tragedy and trials of the past.

As the play continues the audience is forced to consider the question of whether this family can ever totally overcome its history, a question that our entire nation struggles with to this day.

This superb production directed by Timothy Bond, is presented in association with Syracuse Stage. There’s not a weak member in the cast. Expect to see haunting performances by Stephen Tyrone Williams as Boy Willie and Erika LaVonn as Berniece. But also expect the supporting players to be remarkable. Lymon, Boy Willie’s sidekick, as played by Yaegel T. Welch is totally captivating when he’s speaking, but then when he’s in the background, he’s outstanding—never hogging the scene but so important within it.

Despite it’s serious subject, there’s lots of humor in this play. And G. Valmont Thomas as Wining Boy inhabits his role as piano player/schemer/funny guy with utter command. He’s a great foil for the excellent Derrick Lee Weeden, as Doaker, the other uncle in the piece.

The Seattle Rep/Syracuse Stage production of this Pulitzer Prize winning play should not be missed.

Through Feb. 8 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center, 155 Mercer St., Seattle (206-443-2222 or www. seattlerep.org).

WET’s “Sprawl” Christens the New 12th Avenue Arts Theatre Complex

The star here is definitely the new flexible black box theatre, part of the innovative two-house theatre complex created by the nonprofit Capitol Hill Housing group on the main floor of its 88-unit apartment building in the heart of Capitol Hill. The facility is a welcome addition to the whole Seattle theatre scene. Three companies—New Century Theatre Company, Strawberry Theatre Workshop, and Washington Ensemble Theatre (WET) —will share the spaces.

WET’s “Sprawl,” directed by Ali Mohamed el-Gasseir, the first production here, makes good use of the sophisticated lighting set up and sound system, but the company might have thought twice before selecting Joshua Conkel’s “Sprawl” to show off the space, its facilities, and the many talents of its own actors. Though the creators of this work liken it to that of John Waters and Tim Burton, it seems to be more a campy take on those old time B-grade movies like “It Came from Outer Space” and “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Disorganized, disheveled, and somewhat sophomoric are the descriptors that come to mind.

The story takes place in a model home in a new suburban housing development (and yes the expected jokes about suburban living are included). A very pregnant agent and her coke-snorting colleague are waiting for their book group/prospective buyers to show up. They don’t get what they expected from this evening!

The commendable cast deserved better. Samie Spring Detzer does a great waddle as she lugs around her about to be born offspring. Laura Hanson has all the nervous energy of a coke-head. Marc Kenison in drag as the Mayor’s wife is snobbery personified. Justin Huertas and Ben McFadden bring the right humor and charm to their roles as two gay guys. And kudos to the prop people who designed the cars they drive up in. But then the insectoids take over.

This wasn’t my cup of tea, but if you loved those ancient science fiction-horror films, this might be to your taste.

Through Feb. 2 at 12th Ave. Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle, (206 325-5105 or washingtonensemble.org)