*** (out of ****)
Enjoying the West End revival of The Lady From Dubuque, an Edward Albee work that only lasted a mere twelve performances on Broadway before closing back in 1980, I was struck by how perfectly it would fit within the repertoire of today’s Steppenwolf Theatre. As it's about life, death and the dignity that can be found in each, it's a pity this piece hasn't been dusted off earlier.
With an affluent thirty-something white American angst, the play begins with the conclusion of a boozy parlor game in the well-adorned post-modern living room of Jo (Catherine McCormack) and Sam (Robert Sella). But the game soon gives way to reveal that Jo is gravely ill.
She is clearly not taking her malady lying down. In chronic pain, she doesn't suffer fools and eviscerates everyone in her path, including her guests and her husband. Each of them must suffer her in return. And try as they might, they barely succeed.
It isn’t easy.
One guest, Lucinda (Vivienne Benesch), ends up sprawled on Sam and Jo’s front lawn sobbing; Lucinda’s dutiful husband Edgar (Chris Larkin) implores the frail Jo to go out and apologize, which she grudgingly obliges to do. The remaining guests leave, allowing Sam to finally carry Jo’s fragile body upstairs and put her to rest.
Enter Elizabeth (Maggie Smith) and Oscar (Peter Francis James)(pictured). Almost as quickly as they appear, the curtain falls on Act One. Who are these mysterious people? Why have they come calling in the middle of the night, anyway?
In a classic “conundrum wrapped in an enigma,” Albee’s play evolves from one about the pain of life into one celebrating the wonder of death. No matter how we try to prevent it from happening, it will happen.
The acting in this Anthony Page-directed ensemble piece -- that also includes an outstanding Jennifer Regan and Glenn Flescher as the one would-be married couple Carol and Fred -- is first-rate. Thanks to Page’s deft hand, the pacing is swift, but subtleties abound, especially in the inherent humor found in Smith’s portrayal of Elizabeth, the titular character, as well as in Regan's surprisingly sweet and underestimated Carol.
Whether Elizabeth and Oscar are the personification of the “Angel(s) of Death” or the not-so-“Grim Reaper(s),” it becomes clear that it is Jo’s time to leave her misery, and she does so willingly despite Sam’s feeble attempts to evict these strangers from his home. The relief we see in Jo’s embrace of death is both touching and heartwrenching.
She has come home and made us see that even as we all must die, it need not be ugly, but a beautiful thing worth embracing when the appropriate moment comes.
This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).
Dame Maggie Smith Confirmed for London Albee Revival (August 30, 2006)
The Dame as a Lady: Maggie Smith to Return to the Stage? (June 30, 2006)