HOUSTON -- "Edward Albee, in his best plays, writes about family," offers Sidney Berger. "And All Over, though obscure, is about exactly this, the specters of entanglements." Berger directs the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright's spare, experimental domestic drama for Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston Mar. 6-29.
In the play, Wife, Mistress, Best Friend, Son, and Daughter hold a vigil at the deathbed of a famous public figure, who's off-stage. Tensions mount, recriminations fly, and power plays ensue as the unnamed characters ponder their intertwined existence. Uneasy alliances are revealed, and many are self-deluded and self-destructive. Set against the backdrop of mortality -- how people confront and avoid it, how it overwhelms and undercuts -- All Over is another Albee indictment of family life that begins archly and ultimately explodes. Facing death, the family realizes how they've defined, and limited, themselves through each other.
Originally premiering in 1971 at the Martin Beck Theater in New York, All Over starred Jessica Tandy (as Wife) and Colleen Dewhurst (as Mistress) and was directed by John Gielgud. But though written after Albee's reputation had been established, the show was more or less dismissed by critics for being, among other things, too static and remote.
Berger disagrees, considering the text taut, tough: dynamic because it's static, immediate for being remote. "It's rather like Sartre's No Exit: people emotionally locked into a space. In this case, a family has to deal with a dying man's shadow: the play is about we do when waiting. They are forced to grapple with expectations that have been foisted upon them, largely, but not exclusively, by the dying, difficult man. They have based their lives in terms of him. The play offers a choice: do you remain locked into these expectations or do you rebuild your life? Or are you so lost that you can do neither?"
In a 1971 discussion with Guy Flatley, which is part of a 1988 book titled Conversations with Edward Albee, Albee remarks, "Serious theater is meant to change people, to challenge their perception of themselves. And there is a change that takes place in All Over. . . I write plays about how people waste their lives. The people in this play have not lived their lives; that's what they're screaming and crying about." Albee is in residence for the production, he and Berger being friends and colleagues. Albee teaches each spring at the University of Houston School of Theatre, which Berger heads. A few seasons back, Berger directed A Delicate Balance at Stages, with Albee pitching in then too.
"I'm very concerned with what theses characters do after the play," Berger observes. "Edward said, 'I am too.'"
What's it like directing with Albee on the premises? "At first I was very fearful. But Edward is extraordinarily supportive of me and the cast." Whether line readings or scene motivations, Albee explicated any and every intention for the cast. And when Berger had the temerity to point out an inconsistency in All Over, Albee agreed, cutting the offending section.
Berger is Albee's director of choice in Houston. "My job is to serve the playwright," Berger concludes. "I will serve good writing to the best of my abilities. I think Edward senses this, and trusts me."
All Over runs Mar. 6-29 at Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston. For tickets, $15 - $28, call (713) 52-STAGES
-- By Peter Szatmary