A man lies dying, and his wife, his best friend, his grown children and his mistress gather in the next room to wait for his death. It soon becomes clear that the man was a public figure who made a lot of money and wielded a great deal of power. The wife and the mistress seem to care deeply for each other. The wife and the husband's best friend were lovers for a brief time. But the wife despises her children--and both have been irredeemably scarred by their mother's brutal disapproval.
This is a grim premise for a play, but as Edward Albee's All Over unwinds its ironies and the characters stand revealed for what they are, the devastation wrought by loveless people on others becomes clearer and clearer. The Boulder Repertory's powerful production takes no prisoners--in the end, we're all wiped out by it.
Many of America's greatest playwrights have been haunted by, and consequently written about, dysfunctional families (O'Neill, Williams, Durang, Crowley, Kopit, for starters), and the mother is very often the villain of the piece or at least the catalyst for misery and/or tragedy. Of course, these playwrights are all men, but each has blamed Mom for both their own and their characters' problems. Bad mothers bring out the worst in men: misogyny. And Albee is the king of the dysfunctional-family drama.
The only sympathetic character in All Over is the ineffectual son, the tortured male whose castrating mother has reduced him to a whimpering mute. When he tries to express his grief, she ridicules the form it takes, so he can't even mourn the death of his father in peace. His feisty older sister tries to stand up to the coldhearted matriarch with vituperative denunciations, and though she holds her own for a while, the mother's ultimate weapon--utter and final rejection of the daughter--lays her low, too.
It's all so sick. The alliance between the mistress and the wife is, perhaps, the most obvious perversity, but the real problem here is that no one is capable of genuine affection. At one point the wife scoffs at the idea of selfless love. When her daughter asks if she loves her, she accuses the daughter of loving no one. The mistress talks a good game about her relationship with the dying man, but she's utterly indifferent to the damage she has done the wife. Nor does she seem to hold her own humanity very high--she has defined herself by her illicit relationship to a powerful man (appallingly retro at this point in history, but then, the play was written in 1971). The mother finally tells everyone that she loves none of them, that she loved only her husband.
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Since this is Albee, All Over is beautifully written, psychologically complex, as bleak as Ingmar Bergman's darkest films, and obsessed with the sorry state of human affairs. But there is light hidden deep within the play (just a spark, granted, but light, nevertheless): Except for the son, who is the only innocent, these characters inhabit the hell they themselves create with every thought, word and action.
Frank Georgianna's intelligent, inventive direction creates more meaning than even Albee invested in the play. He lets the actors drift toward each other and then away--shipwrecked on islands of suffering. He allows nervous, troubled humor to erupt in moments of irony that both relieve the mounting psychic tensions and create pockets of sorrow we need to think about later.
Georgianna also plays the deceased's best friend, and his performance is a marvel of realism. Without many lines, he builds a whole history for his character, an impression of who and what the man really is. Susan d'Autremont projects such dignity that she almost makes us forget the actual nature of the mistress's relationship to the unseen male power. It's a persuasive, smart, involving performance, but never a sympathetic one. John Tischer has the fewest lines, yet he manages to project decency and weakness with equal grace as the son. Only Melody Thomas falters; although she fixes her beautiful face in a mask of anger and anguish, it is not enough to explain the daughter.
As the wife, Ethelyn Friend gives the most remarkable performance of the evening. She is detestable, vulnerable, cruel, strong and pathetic all at once. Somehow the simplest lines seethe and smolder in her mouth before she spits them out as ice. Very, very nice work.