PRINCETON, NJ – “A Delicate Balance” is a play that’s difficult to grasp with its layers of reality mixed with interior motivations.
The always elegant Kathleen Chalfant is Agnes, who appears to dominate the household where she and  her husband, Tobias, put up with her alcoholic sister, Claire. John Glover is Agnes’s stalwart husband, who ultimately has his own near-breakdown. Penny Fuller is his usually drunk sister-in-law. But all of them consume plenty of drinks as the three-hour play meanders along.
Claire does her best to lighten the mood, at one point dragging in an accordion, as well as telling tales of buying a topless bathing suit and other stunts.
Agnes and Tobias’s  daughter, Julia, is arriving home after her latest marriage (her fourth) has ended in divorce. Fracesca Faridany plays the lost, angry daughter who wants to return to her room.

But that space has been usurped by friends of Agnes and Tobias, Edna and Harry. They suddenly became fearful in their own home and have descended on their best friends’ abode to make it their own.  Roberta Maxwell and James A. Stephens are the long-time friends and godparents to Julia.
The play frequently centers on the value of friendship and how far should you go to preserve that friendship? When does trust turn to resentment? How willing should you be to dislodge your lives for someone else? Julia, in particular, has her own meltdown as she realizes that she no longer has a place called ‘home.’
Agnes and Tobias live in a fashionable Connecticut suburb, with obviously hired help to serve their meals and do the ordinary chores around the house.  It’s a country club world, much like the kind inhabited by the characters in A. R. Gurney’s plays…very WASP and proper. Agnes, in particular, is concerned with appearances, the correct way to behave. Still, she makes it almost impossible for anyone else to feel free to state an opinion or take a stand. Except for Claire, of course.  They are complete opposites in terms of self control. Agnes is constantly second guessing others, clearly convinced that she can see matters objectively. But what passes for observation often results in cruelty.
McCarter’s Emily Mann has directed this fine cast with an eye to the cutting comment, the rapid descent from civility into something else. Everyone is holding his or her breath, perhaps waiting for the other shoe to drop. Agnes contends that their friends have not only arrived with their fear, but with the plague.  She insists that Tobias decide how to deal with Edna and Harry.
The handsome set was designed by Daniel Ostling and costumes by Jennifer von Mayhauser.  Lap Chi Chu’s lighting enhances the dawn to daylight shift during Act III, when, presumably, normal life will resume.
 “A Delicate Balance” is a thought-provoking and sensitive drama. It continues at the McCarter Theatre Center through Feb. 17. For tickets, call 609-258-2787.