If you didn’t know better, you might think Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” takes place in a civilized home. One look at the tasteful furniture and book-lined shelves in the new Aurora Theatre Co. production suggests refinement and — dare we say it? — contentment.
Yet it doesn’t take long for the veneer to strip away and the verbal battles to begin in this one-of-a-kind drawing room comedy. Written just four years after his career-making “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Albee’s 1967 Pulitzer Prize winner continued the playwright’s exploration into the soul of the American psyche, and it gets a first-rate staging by artistic director Tom Ross to open Aurora’s 20th anniversary season.
The play is set in the suburban home of Agnes (Kimberly King) and Tobias (Ken Grantham), a long-married couple. They’re comfortably well-off, and apparently happy. But over a long, boozy weekend, they drop the pretense to reveal a history of grief, betrayal and resentment.
It doesn’t help that their often-divorced daughter, Julia (Carrie Paff), is moving back in, or that Agnes’ alcoholic sister, Claire (Jamie Jones), has settled in for an extended stay.
But what tips the balance is a surprise visit from Harry (Charles Dean) and Edna (Anne Darragh), friends on the run from a fear so terrible they can’t even describe it.
Ross and his design team — Richard Olmsted (sets), Kurt Landisman (lighting), Chris Houston (sound) and Callie Floor (costumes) — give the three-act play an ideal staging, from the carefully crafted visuals to the precise timing of each cutting exchange.
The cast is outstanding. Jones is a crisply sarcastic Claire, and Paff exudes hostility as the frazzled Julia. Dean and Darragh are wonderfully obtuse as the weekend guests. Best of all are King and Grantham, who bring forth the depth and complexity that make Agnes and Tobias two of Albee’s most compelling characters.
Their relationship is the heart of the play, which says so much about time, intimacy, aging and ultimately about responsibility — to each other, to ourselves, to the truth.
“A Delicate Balance” isn’t as bitter as “Virginia Woolf.” But it’s just as incisive, just as funny — and, being Albee, just as brilliant.
Presented by Aurora Theatre Company
Where: 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 16
Tickets: $10 to $48
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org