The Lady from Dubuque
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by Anthony Page
At the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London
A review by M. D. Ball of the performance on May 26, 2007
This review contains spoilers.
This play is misunderstood. Yes, I know that's a tired apologia, but I believe The Lady from Dubuque to be underrated even though I'm reluctant to treat it as great theatre. On the surface, this play is classic Albee: supposed friends sniping at each other, intemperate drinking, irritatingly unanswered questions, and couples who shouldn't have had a second date. More than other Albee plays, however, Lady illustrates the principle that live theatre limits the time an audience has to follow a story. After all, they can't pause to re-read the previous page.
The first act introduces us to Sam and Jo, a married couple hosting a cocktail party at their home in Connecticut for two other couples. Tragically, Jo is terminally ill. Despite the pall hanging over the evening, Sam starts a game of Twenty Questions by simply asking "Who am I?" He repeats the question so many times, and with such mounting agitation, that it begins to congeal as a theme; it starts to represent the existential question that each guest at the party has tried, but failed, to answer for themselves. I'm certain that this interpretation isn't original with me, but the search for self-identity sits at the center of this play, and on closer inspection it's not unreasonable to postulate that the very framework of the script is, in fact, one instance of that very search.
Critics drubbed Lady when it opened on Broadway in 1980. And audiences stayed away. The initial frustration isn't at all difficult to understand, given how perplexing the story is, but that same frustration becomes somewhat easier to dismiss as we take the time -- time that we don't have during a performance -- to recognize what may have been Albee's strategy behind the apparent incoherence of Lady's script. Perhaps he wants us, the audience, to face the same bewilderment that each of his characters faces in his or her own search for self-identity. The dialogue is confusing, and the storyline truncates its own trajectories. The whole play feels like a maze that requires us, as we negotiate our way through it, to go back from every dead-end we encounter and try another path, just as the characters themselves must do right before our befuddled eyes. Those dead-ends are largely oblique incongruities that Albee just leaves dangling. For example, there's a quip about poisoned ice cubes, a cruel joke about infidelity at Jo's expense, and a remark that attendance at these soirées is compulsory. But we don't know why. And on and on.
In this production at the Haymarket, Catherine McCormack plays the disturbing role of our dying and vitriolic hostess. Out of Jo's sickliness and bitterness, McCormack has forged a persona worse than querulous, someone who's indescribably vile to her husband and purported friends. McCormack's Jo is desperate for reassurance, despite having resigned herself to the imminence of her death, but is equally desperate not to seem in need of that reassurance. Anger becomes her, but despondency would be an embarrassment. Therefore, she spits venom at almost everyone, like a mad indiscriminate cobra that feels cornered. So invidious is she, in fact, that it's often uncomfortable to watch. One wants to sympathize with this young woman who sees her own death approaching -- to just stand aside and let her erupt in her hopeless search for retributive justice.
The first act is mostly expository, with all the couples quarreling until they finally depart the protracted party for home. But with only a few seconds remaining before intermission, two new characters appear on the scene. One is a woman who uses the name "Elizabeth" and claims to be Jo's mother from Dubuque, Iowa. She's the mystery at the heart of our Albee experience. In her company is a black man whom she introduces as her friend "Oscar", no less mysterious than Elizabeth in either identity or purpose. Elizabeth and Oscar remind one of the two intruders in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, though without the sinister overtones.
Dame Maggie Smith portrayed our mystery lady with characteristic gracefulness; in a word, she was irresistible. In the role of Oscar, Peter Francis James did have his moments, but much of his delivery was stilted, suffering from the same shortcoming that tainted some other performances: he sounded rehearsed and mechanical, rather than creating the impression that he was hearing the dialogue for the first time. But to his credit, James tinged Oscar's urbanity with believable and refreshing intimations of less-cosmopolitan roots.
The ensuing exchange between Sam and Elizabeth deepens the existentialist puzzle. Robert Sella played the exasperated Sam who demands that Elizabeth truthfully identify herself. He repeatedly asks her, "Who are you?", to which she repeatedly insists that she's Jo's mother, even though Sam is certain that Elizabeth is lying, given the fact that she doesn't at all fit his mother-in-law's description. Sella brought out Sam's teetering emotions, from his crushing feeling of helplessness in the face of his wife's suffering and imminent death, to his aggravation at the affrontery of these two strangers in his living room.
Jo's dislocating reaction of warmth and trust toward Elizabeth is even more baffling. Is Elizabeth really Jo's mother? If so, do we know it simply because Elizabeth claims to be her mother? Or because Jo responds to her with emotion that bears the signature of recognition and welcome relief?
As many people argue, it may be that Elizabeth represents the Angel of Death. But isn't it more reasonable to infer that Elizabeth has come to prepare Jo for the end of her life, to give her the reassurance she seeks? If so, then why should Elizabeth not claim to be Jo's mother? And why should Oscar not become the personification of death, who, when he senses that Jo is ready, carries her upstairs to her bedroom and later emerges to announce that she has died? Oscar never explains himself. And, after all, neither does death.