Edward Albee's artistic dominion lies somewhere between the bruising psychological dramas of Eugene O'Neill and the films of Ingmar Bergman, and the absurdist theater of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. For over 50 years he's proved his staying power as a playwright, at times forced to defend his work against acrimonious critics or puzzled audiences. His comeback production of Three Tall Women in 1994 won him his third Pulitzer; he had written it after his mother's death, and had stated in its introduction that, although they "had managed to make each other very unhappy," he was proud to have translated a "fact into fiction," without "the distortive folly of 'interpretation.'" And yet, the play, as any of his works, wasn't a simple matter of fact-taking. It revolved around the question of consciousness: the limitations of what and how we know; the epistemic value of one's life; the pleasures and consolations, if any, that we may derive from it. "My adoptive mother," Albee wrote in the intro, "whom I knew from my infancy…and who, perhaps, knew me as well. Perhaps."
"Perhaps" is the operative word—in Three Tall Women, and now again, in the current production of The Lady from Dubuque, staged at the Signature Theatre. Both plays center around a dying woman. In Lady from Dubuque, which opens with an amicable enough party (witticisms flying high before they crash, buoyed by plenty of booze—a true Albee setting), the hostess, Jo, is dying of cancer. She and her husband Sam are middle-aged, comfortably if not ostentatiously wealthy, and, from what we can tell, deeply in love, in spite of it all. And though their loyalties to their friends—the over-solicitous Lucinda and her meek husband Edgar, the "dirt common" Fred and his spunky, young girlfriend Carol—wear dangerously thin, in the name of bracing honesty, all could have been patched up and forgotten, if not for the sudden arrival of two visitors, Elizabeth and Oscar.
Who are they? And why have they come? The questions are repeated more than a dozen times. But while Elizabeth and Oscar are physical beings (observed by Jo, Sam, et al), their identity may be as impossible to ferret out as the answer to the question why Jo must die. There simply are no answers, only the facts. Jo is dying, irrevocably, her agony staged with both clinical accuracy and existentialist terror, calling to mind Bergman's Cries and Whispers, or O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night. But despite Jo's suffering, played with unflinching radiance by Laila Robins, whose voice dips to pained throes from a husky, seductive throttle, the play isn't nearly as much about her as Three Tall Women was about A (or B or C, since they were plausibly the same woman). Instead, the play focuses on Sam, the survivor. He orchestrates the party, and in act two confronts Elizabeth who claims to be Jo's mother. Sam doesn't believe her, but no one believes him. A fight ensues, and Sam ends up tied up, incapacitated, with Jo lying on the couch, semi-conscious, in her "mother's" arms.
"Is this what you want?" Sam asks Jo, once the friends depart, in a huff. "Because if this is what you want, I'm not any part of it; you've locked me out. I...I don't exist. I...I don't exist. Just...just tell me." Sam's adversarial stance melts into childishness. Elizabeth, his archenemy, consoles him. "No time to be afraid?!" he asks. "No! No time!" she assures him, "Everything done before you know it." It is a heartbreaking message, difficult to absorb after freewheeling, increasingly discomfiting barbs. Whoever Elizabeth may be (Mother, Angel, Death, perhaps even an incarnation of Jo), her kindness lies in her cruelty. The part is beautifully acted by Jane Alexander, who arrives on stage regally, clad in flowing heather-blue garments, with immaculate steel-gray hair: a severe, monochromatic presence. Equally imposing is Peter Francis James as Oscar: Supremely polished and cold, by dressing himself in Sam's robes, he teaches him that everything must be shed—possessions, titles, pride—in order to let Jo die. We have been watching funereal rites, after all.
Why dress them up as play, as in games, puns, put-upon, pretense? Because we do, perhaps. The last pleasure, as consciousness slips away, is the mind's wrestling for clarity: to feel oneself going; to articulate "what it is" or "how it is," if not necessarily to answer "who am I?" This is where Albee's artistic territory abuts Beckett's: "That's the happiest moment," says A in Three Tall Women, "When it's all done. When we stop. When we can stop." In Lady from Dubuque, Albee hadn't yet reached the same level of sublimation, or objectivity, he would achieve writing A (Lady from Dubuque was composed from 1977 to 1979, Three Tall Women from 1990 to 1991). But the many labors of saying goodbye are reminiscent of Hamm's preparations for exit in Endgame, and of his scolding of Clov ("You're leaving me all the same"). Before acceptance, there's the fight with death; yet not even the cleverest word games can mask the truth that Sam's "end of the world" is really Jo's, and his "I'm dying," as self-centered as Hamm's, is also hers—or rather, only hers. The play's emotional gravitas lies in resisting Sam's claims to martyrdom. In spite of its deliberate distractions (magnificently, often hilariously played by the supporting cast, under the direction of David Esbjornson, who returns to Albee's work after previously having directed The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia on Broadway), this last rebuttal is bound to stay with us, long after the curtain falls.
The Lady from Dubuque runs through April 1 at the Signature Theatre.