“Death be not proud,” Cynthia Nixon pleads on West 47th Street in the stunning production of Wit at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. Well, Nixon clearly has not been informed that Death is being played by Jane Alexander in The Lady from Dubuque at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Despite John Donne’s poem, this stately, elegant and imperious Death is certainly proud.
A poignant and provocative allegory about death, The Lady from Dubuque, by Edward Albee, was first produced on Broadway in 1980. Shunned by critics and audiences alike, it closed after only 12 performances and inspired many to lament the absence of Albee’s finer work. But this production, crisply directed by David Esbjornson, presents this play for what it is – a truly fine work that presents an uncomfortably clear picture humans when they are facing the end of their lives.
The Lady from Dubuque opens at a suburban cocktail party (staged on John Arnone’s spacious, elegant set) where strong drinks and even stronger words are being exchanged. (After all, it is an Albee play.) The guests are playing “Twenty Questions,” and Sam (Michael Hayden) frequently asks his guests, “Who am I?” As the game progresses, Sam’s wife, Jo (Laila Robins) provides an embittered commentary. Suffering from terminal cancer that will soon claim her life, Jo endures bursts of agonizing pain that send her to the floor, screaming and writhing in pain.
Joe and Sam’s two sets of friends attending the party are Edgar and Lucinda (Thomas Jay Ryan and Catherine Curtin), and Fred and Carol (C. J. Wilson and Tricia Paoluccio). Both couples are skillfully performed by the talented duos, with the sincerely square Edgar and Lucinda portraying an annoying earnestness that is both admirable and despicable. Watching Curtin’s Lucinda, one can understand why Jo lashes out so fiercely at her, but also why she continues to invite her over. Ryan gives Edgar an aching honesty that becomes more painful to watch as the show progresses. Wilson’s Fred is a testosterone laden man-child who is clearly inferior to his latest girlfriend, who Paoluccio simultaneously instills with a quiet confidence and insecurity. Watching the six characters interact, I couldn’t help but wonder why they were all friends. But, like I said, this is an Albee play so these questions are inevitable.
The evening takes a darker turn after the guests go home and Jo and Sam begin to talk honestly about her illness. Albee paints a piercing portrayal of the effect cancer can have on people, and the talented Robins and Hayden capably depict the anger and sadness coursing through Jo as well as the guilt that Sam attempts to hide. This all-too-accurate scene is more uncomfortable to witness than any of the acerbic barbs Jo had tossed out through the party, especially when she asks her husband, “If you can’t take it now, where will you be when I need you?”
A fourth couple joins the party after Sam has carried Jo up the stairs to her bed, amidst her screams of agony. Elizabeth (in a pitch perfect performance by Jane Alexander) and her companion Oscar (an elegant and entertaining Peter Francis James) arrive unannounced, much to the bewilderment of Sam who finds them in his living room the following morning. The mysterious woman claims she is Jo’s mother, visiting from Dubuque to help her daughter with her impending death. However, Jo had described her mother as a pink-haired recluse who lives in New Jersey with her sister. This woman – tall and elegant, with patrician features, white hair and dressed in tasteful shades of grey – does not fit that description.
Regal, imperious, and completely unfazed by the chaos around her, Elizabeth seeks one thing – Jo. And Jo is drawn to her, going wordlessly into her arms the moment she sees her. Sam, however, refuses to accommodate Elizabeth, frantically denying that she is Jo’s mother. His friends, who have returned after the previous night’s party, don’t seem to mind Elizabeth’s presence and go about their own business the best they can.
The Lady from Dubuque depicts the various ways in which people respond to death in a disconcertingly accurate way. Some, like Sam, fight it with all of their heart and soul, denying its presence even when it is right in front of them. Others, like Lucinda, attempt to keep things pleasant by making toast and coffee even though no one wants to eat or drink anything. But, after all, it’s good to stay busy.
One can understand how, in the hands of a different director or company, The Lady from Dubque might be difficult to grasp. The powerful allegory, as well as the underlying themes of identity, are weighty and unless lightened with carefully placed moments of humor, too heavy to maintain for a two-hour performance. But this cast of thoughtful, talented performers is able to find a balance in the script and honor Albee’s work while providing a thoroughly entertaining performance. As Jo, Robins gives a fiercely heartfelt and heart-wrenching performance. Her portrayal of a the landslide of emotions that comes with cancer is honest and honorable, and the glimpses at the vulnerability beneath Jo’s steely exterior are so rewarding to witness. Hayden’s performance as Sam is equally notable, especially when he falls into frantic desperation, attempting to save his wife from the mysterious visitor who has come for her. James is a scene-stealing Oscar, impeccably elegant and even-keeled while still mocking everyone who mentions his race and bringing the house down when he enters the room clad in Sam’s old-fashioned nightshirt. “Do I make a good Sam?” he asks jovially. (Of course, being asked in an Albee play, the question is weighted with double meaning.)
As the titular mysterious woman, Alexander gives a performance of impeccable character. She embodies the mystery and allure that her character must embody while still being sympathetic to the dying Jo. Elegant, refined, gracious and aloof, Alexander’s melodic voice and genteel manner are perfect for this mysterious woman. When Sam, lying on the floor, desperately reaches up to the lady, stretching his fingers out and she reaches down to him, the image closely resembles Michelangelo’s famous painting “The Creation of Adam,” except the result is the opposite.
Despite John Donne’s poem, this Death is proud. How could she be anything else?