KPBS AIRDATE: February 24, 1993
Playwright Edward Albee, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, seems like a realist but he’s really a fabulist. His scathing dialogue, lacerating wit and incendiary character conflicts are placed in believable settings. But surreal surprises always lurk behind a curtain. And the sarcasm fairly oozes onto the stage.
The dying woman in “The Lady from Dubuque” is in great pain. That gives her and her husband free leave to insult their friends with viciousness. It does not, however, give the director free leave to treat the disturbing piece like a movie of the week, dripping in melodrama.
At Octad-One Productions in College Grove, director Don Pugh has assembled a formidable cast. But he’s encouraged them to take everything very seriously, to go way over the top emotionally, and that cheapens the play, the production and the playwright’s intent.
This piece is like “Virginia Woolf” for six. The dialogue crackles with caustic wit. It needs to move rapidly, lightly, although the barbs go very deep. Jo is in pain and Sam feels helpless. Their long-time friends, Fred and Lu and Edgar, come to visit. Fred the redneck has another new bimbo. Lu is, as always, clueless. Edgar is henpecked by her. Carol is sometimes wise for a bimbo, but she’s the outsider of the group. And Sam and Jo? Well, they’re just brutal.
The first act plods along, although the acting, if overdone, is fine. Wayne Alan Erreca and Pauline Whitaker are a powerful Sam and Jo. The friends are strong in their own rights.
Then everything changes in Act Two, with the appearance of strange visitors. The woman is white, the man black. There are racial slurs and defenses. The woman claims to be the dying wife’s mother. We’re not sure who she is, but she seems like an angel of death.
Reality has flown out the window, and if you play it like TV, the subtlety goes, too. There isn’t much subtlety — or attractiveness or believability, for that matter — in Bill Farnum’s set. In a play about the fine line between reality and fantasy, the fantasy part of the design is that anyone would actually buy furniture like this. Another fantasy is that people just sort of sit and stare at each other during all sorts of conversation. Stage business is virtually nil and there aren’t many interesting stage pictures to speak of.
But the audience can rise above. In spite of the flaws of this production, you should go see the play, mostly for the brilliance of the writing and the earnest efforts of the cast.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.