Palm Beach Dramaworks stages Florida premiere of Albee's 'At Home at the Zoo'
The day Maureen Anderman talked with the cast of Palm Beach Dramaworks' production of At Home at the Zoo, she phoned her friend Edward Albee to ask what advice he'd like her to pass on to the performers. Albee gave his standard response: "Say the lines the way I wrote them." The reply did not surprise Anderman. She's known Albee since the early 1970s, when she originated the role of Sarah in his play Seascape, which he also directed. She played Honey in the Albee-directed revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and originated the role of Carol in Albee's The Lady from Dubuque. Dramaworks Producing Artistic Director William Hayes asked her to talk about Albee's work because of her long experience with his plays. The theater opened the Florida premiere of At Home at the Zoo Friday. The play is a blend of old and new. The second act consists of The Zoo Story, the show that in 1959 established Albee as a force in American theater. More than 40 years later, Hartford Stage in Connecticut commissioned Albee to write a first act that reveals what led up to the fatal clash in The Zoo Story. For those needing a refresher course in The Zoo Story, it's about Peter, a mild-mannered textbook publisher who goes to Central Park on a Sunday to read on his favorite bench. His relaxation is interrupted by Jerry, a misfit who sees beyond Peter's complacent facade to his deep-seated frustrations. Jerry badgers Peter with upsetting revelations and eventually needles him into an explosive confrontation. Homelife, the first act, rewinds to the hours immediately before Peter goes to the park. Peter is again reading, when his wife, Ann, starts a conversation in which she voices her discontent with how tame their lives have become. Albee has said he wanted to write a prequel to The Zoo Story because he had short-changed the character of Peter in the play. Fleshing out Peter's character could be "Edward's way of grounding the story," said Michael Wilson, artistic director of Hartford Stage. "It makes it slightly less abstract." Together, the acts explore themes of repression and self-deception and the crises of identity that beset people in middle age, said Hayes, who directs Dramaworks' production. "It also answers the pressing questions we ask ourselves when we see Zoo Story, 'Why does Peter stay?'" he said. Dramaworks' past productions include four Albee plays: The Zoo Story, The American Dream, Seascape and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Hayes directed all except The American Dream. Albee hasn't communicated directly with Dramaworks, but he knows about the theater because he insists on approving the casts and directors of his plays. Hayes' approach to Albee's work is something like a leap of faith. "He's like a composer," Hayes said. "I'm like a conductor with sheet music in front of me. It may not make sense at first, but if I follow his guidance and allow the actors to stay right on it, eventually you find it." In addition to being one of this country's most revered playwrights, Albee is one of its most exacting. His scripts are full of detailed instructions. Directions such as "appalled" or "slowly" indicate how lines are to be delivered. Words that are to be emphasized are underlined. Scripted pauses, ellipses or silences establish pacing. "Actors who work on Albee's plays all know that three dots are different from a pause, which is different from a silence," Anderman said. It's not that Albee is finicky, she said. "He's so focused on language and what words mean," she said. "He listens to people's words." He also has a keen sense of humor. For example, when Anderman told Albee that she was flabbergasted by something, the playwright deadpanned, "Well, we don't want to have your flabber gasted." "That's the way his mind works," Anderman said. "He plays with words." Fun aside, it's unlikely the meticulous Albee added words to one of his most famous plays lightly.