In the star-studded revival of Edward Albee's play, a Pulitzer Prize-winning examination of marriage and society, Plimpton plays Julia, the daughter of Agnes and Tobias (Glenn Close and John Lithgow) who, following her latest marital struggle, returns to her childhood home. But her visit to her parents is less than peaceful, the conflict beginning when she finds her childhood bedroom occupied by two friends of the family, much to her loudly voiced chagrin.
Julia does not hide her anger at her family or their friends, adding to the already escalated tension of the household that contains an alcoholic aunt (Lindsay Duncan) and the family friends Edna and Harry (Clare Higgins and Bob Balaban), who have fled to Agnes and Tobias' home to escape an unnamed terror they felt in their own household.
"Julia is a very tough character because, as Albee himself has said, she isn't really a full person when she enters the play," Plimpton said. "She doesn't even really know who she is. Through the course of her return home, she becomes a stranger in her own home, sort of an interloper. Much of the things that make her the person she is happen offstage." Playing challenging characters is nothing new for Plimpton, a three-time Tony Award nominee who made her Broadway debut in 2004's Sixteen Wounded. She went on to appear in Tom Stoppard's three-part historical epic The Coast of Utopia, Shakespeare's rarely performed Cymbeline and Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, as well as the musical Pal Joey and the New York Philharmonic production of Company, Stephen Sondheim's musical examination of marriage.
Upon her return home, Julia's seemingly foremost need is to have her bedroom returned to her, while her father struggles to connect with her, and her mother has little time for her daughter's demands. The other residents of the home hide their emotions in alcohol or mask their feelings with small talk, but Julia makes her needs known and demands that her family acknowledge them — utilizing both words and weapons to assist her.
Commenting on her character's honesty, Plimpton said, "I suppose you could call it honesty, but you could also just call it raw need and sort of self-centeredness as well.
"[Albee] doesn't leave a lot of clues, and he certainly gives her some real kind of hairpin turns that are quite extreme and somewhat shocking," she continued. "And you're not entirely sure where they come from. But I think our focus on this production has been to try to be as true to her super objective of wanting her room, while at the same time acknowledging the absurdity and even the comedy — the surreal comedy — of her. It's a fine line."
First produced on Broadway in 1966 and honored with both a Tony nomination and the Pulitzer Prize, A Delicate Balance returned to Broadway in 1996, when it received the Tony Award for Best Revival. Despite having been written at the height of the Cold War, Plimpton said, the play, which touches upon the uncertainty that a certain lifestyle and class faced, continues to speak to people.
"I think that among a certain class of wealthy or well-to-do white established Americans, there can be a sort of crippling terror, masked by an almost survivalist form of ennui, and particularly at times of political change, social change — these things become heightened," Plimpton said. "And in this play I think Albee is dramatizing those things in a very personal way, of course, which is the best way. Polemics don't often have the kind of staying power that a play like this has. So he's addressing these larger issues on a mirco level, and those things never change. The insulation in which people of this class live is penetrable, and it's usually penetrable from within, certainly on a spiritual sense but also on a sort of social level."
The terror that causes Edna and Harry to flee from their home is never defined, but instead referred to by Agnes as a "plague"; the fear the characters experience is another aspect of the play that continues to permeate present-day culture, especially during the first previews when the Ebola virus was dominating the news.
"The work is prescient, but it's also present," Plimpton said. "Words like 'quarantine' and 'isolate' and 'terror' and 'plague' — these are words that have a significant power in our culture right now, perhaps even more so than they may have had at the time. Certainly the play was recognized for its brilliance then, as we know, but there are absolutely, for lack of a better term, trigger words in this play that can completely connect us to the anxieties we experience today. Everything from immigration to terrorism to disease paranoia, illness paranoia… there's a heightened fear out there. An unnamed terror, I should say. There are certain members of political class who seek to exploit that, but in this play we're looking at it from the lens of Edward Albee, which is significantly smarter."
Plimpton expects the discussion of "terror" to affect audience members in different ways, adding, "I wouldn't want to impose my interpretation of it on the audience. I'd like the people to have the experience they have when they see the show and not mine. But certainly it's discussed. Terror, sitting in the room upstairs. That fear that we have allowed our lives to slip away from us, that we have waited so long to make the decisions in life that could have lifted us out of the morass.
"We have finally reached the mountaintop and seen that the decisions have all been made for us and it's too late," she continued. "But for each character I think that terror represents a different thing. It's a different thing for Tobias than it is for Agnes. So, I think for people seeing the play, they'll have their own sense of what it is, too. And on a certain level, a lot of people leave the theatre wondering what it is, and that wondering is okay, too. It's part of the experience of the play."
The experience of the play, and the struggles within that experience, continue to challenge Plimpton as she goes to work every day.
"The play's not called A Delicate Balance for nothing," she said. "Every character in this play is sort of walking along a knife's edge. You've got to work hard with this one." (Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)