Death Comes in Shades of Gray: Edward Albee’s “The Lady From Dubuque” at Signature Theater Company

In the early years of The New Yorker’s publication, then editor Harold Ross, when asked what the magazine’s target readership was, famously pronounced, “it is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.”  And neither apparently is Albee’s aptly named play, which opened at Signature Theater Company on the 5th.  But despite it’s frequent moments of absurdist opacity, Signature’s “The Lady From Dubuque” lays bare and  paints a vivid picture of the troubling questions stirred up when death comes to visit, even if she comes dressed elegantly in muted shades of gray.

“The Lady from Dubuque” was not received well when the original production first opened on Broadway on January 31, 1980. It lasted for only 12 performances.  It is perhaps easy to see why; Ben Brantley of the New York times points out that critics found it “posturing, pretentious, and baffling,” with its characters little more than stand-ins for abstract concepts.  But while the concept-character map drawing still persists in Signature’s production, it also encompasses an arrestingly nuanced portrait of man who looses his wife.

“Lady from Dubuque” starts in a characteristically Albee fashion – a casual upper-middle class get together – plenty of alcohol and plenty of caustic jabs from a dyspeptic host.  Said host, Jo, however, has good reason for her prickly demeanor.  She is in the final stages of a terminal and exceedingly painful sickness.  As guests trade sparring words over a party game (“Guess Who in 20 questions”) Jo’s husband Sam’s beseeching calls for an answer to “Who am I” turn from game to nightmare and from “Who am I” to “Who are you” when a posh stranger and her mysterious companion show up at the door.

The lady claims to be Jo’s mother, come from Dubuque to visit her dying child, but Sam knows Jo’s mother lives in New Jersey and looks nothing like this woman.  Sam’s confusion devolves into hysteria as his friends take the strangers’ side and as he desperately attempts to keep the lady from taking Jo into her arms.

“The Lady from Dubuque” is a death scene, a death play rather.  However, despite the subject’s countless narrative and artistic treatments throughout human history, Albee finds a particularly adroit and potent way of sketching the psychological torrent Sam survives as his wife succumbs to a protracted death.  You can measure Albee’s success by the very particular sensation one has when the lights come up at the end of act two, but the total lack of appropriate vocabulary to answer either the question “How do you feel?” or “What did you just see?”

Signature theater company offers $25 tickets for all of it’s productions.

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Zach Lindberg, CC ’13

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