Albee’s 1980s "Lady from Dubuque" Gains Ground as a History Play in 2012
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lady from Dubuque
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42d Street
New York, N.Y.
When Edward Albee’s play Lady from Dubuque first opened in New York in 1980, it was savaged by the critics, who did not understand it, and closed after just twelve performances, hardly enough time for the actresses in the story to get their hair done in either Dubuque or New York. The play sat in Albee’s drawer for a generation before being produced again in 2007 at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in London, and now at New York’s new Pershing Square Signature Center, where it opened Monday night.
The play, starring stage veteran Jane Alexander, works much better now than it did when it opened because it offers a window into a now bygone era: the dawn of the '80s, a decade now just as much part of our cultural past as the '70s, '60s, and '50s. Albee added some dialogue about the Nixon administration for the London show, but dropped it here. It should have been retained. It added a nice backdrop to the post-Watergate America portrayed in Lady from Dubuque.
Albee’s tangled play is about a dying woman stuck at a party in her home in which people bedazzle each other with inane games of Twenty Questions, drink too much and think too little. They are overly critical of each other and trade cruel epithets and insults. Jo, stricken with cancer, struggles with her physical pain and mental anguish and hurls the insults even more passionately than her guests.
The play is a rousing, and vicious romp throughout Act One, when the friends and neighbors rip each other to pieces. Jo and her husband Sam battle back and forth. Jo tears apart Lucinda, Edgar’s wife. Big, hulking tough guy Fred, already married three times, tries to get his latest flame, Carol, to become number four throughout the evening. The insinuations fly, Lucinda falls crying on the front lawn, Jo has to crawl up the stairs because her pain is so bad, her husband is in tears and no one knows what will happen next.
At the end of the first act, the pristinely dressed Elizabeth arrives, played by Alexander, who claims she's Jo’s mother. She is accompanied by a sophisticated, tartly tongued African American escort. They both seem on a mission of mystery.
Elizabeth announces that Harold Ross, the founding editor of the New Yorker magazine, once said that his sophisticated magazine was not published to be read by ladies from Dubuque. That sets the tone for Elizabeth’s arrival. She is far outside the cultural center of America, as is her consort Oscar, who claims that he served in the Japanese Army in World War II. (To be clear, they are not actually from Iowa.)
Act Two, unfortunately, is a huge letdown, and I leave the theater shaking my head. What was the message of the play?
The history in the play is attached to the dying Jo. and Jo explains that her physician takes care of her by simply prescribing painkillers. They don’t do a very good job. She was told, as so many cancer victims in the 1970s were told, to keep their chin up, go home, and die.
What’s historically interesting is the dramatic progress medicine, patient care, and information technology has made over the past thirty years. Today Jo would be a part of a cancer support group, either referred to her by her doctor or found on the Internet. There are doctors and even hospitals that specialize in cancer care these days. Painkillers are also more effective. And, perhaps most importantly of all, cancer is not quite the death sentence that it was in the '70s.
It's also remarkable to note that one of the things Albee was ripped for when his play debuted in 1980 was the dying Jo. The 1970s were the era of TV hospital dramas and soap operas, made-for-TV "disease of the week" serials, and a bottomless pit of books about dying (okay, so none of that has changed in the past thirty years). Albee was trying to cash in on the death craze, critics said.
Thirty years later, what’s interesting is not what patients of the era had, but rather what they did not have. If the play was set today, life would be different for Jo. She might still be terminally ill, but she'd live out her remaining days under much better circumstances and with much better care, Lady from Dubuque, in that odd way, is a history book in itself.
The sometimes-rewarding drama is helped by powerful acting from a talented cast. You would think that stage veteran Jane Alexander would take the spotlight, but she's upstaged by the marvelously talented Laila Robins as Jo. Robins plays Jo at first as a heartless victim of cancer, but she gradually transforms into someone you actually care about. Her husband Sam, so worried about her health, is played well by Michael Hayden (not be confused with the former CIA director). Oscar, the sophisticated partner of Elizabeth, is played with charming haughtiness by Peter Francis James. The chauvinistic Fred is played by C.J. Wilson, Lucinda by Catherine Curtin, Carol by Tricia Paoluccio and Edgar by Thomas Jay Ryan.
The play is nicely directed by David Esbjornson, who managed to wring every bit of emotion and passion out of his actors and keep a play in which very little happens moving along at a reasonable pace. John Arnone has designed a striking living room set with a wide staircase to an upper floor.
Lady from Dubuque, back from thirty years of exile, is not a great play, but it is a vivid look at medicine thirty years ago and how advances in it have helped so many people since then.
The play, along with Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot, inaugurates the grand new Pershing Square Signature Theater, a gorgeous silver two-story theater building designed by Frank Gehry, one of America’s most acclaimed architects. It is dazzling. The new Signature is home to three theaters, a courtyard, a café and bookstore. Patrons who arrive early can dine at the café or sip cappuccino in a lounge on the other side of the second floor. The sleek modern theater has wide, sweeping staircases and huge portraits of theater people on its walls. The stages, all of them, are gorgeous. The theater building sits at the corner of W. 42d Street and Tenth Avenue on the same block that houses Theater Row and Playwrights Horizon and their theater complexes. The Signature is a welcome, and beautiful, addition to the New York theater scene.
PRODUCTION: Produced by the Pershing Square Signature Center. Sets: John Arnone, Costumes: Elizabeth Hope Clancy, Lighting: David Lander, Sound: John Gromada. The play is directed by David Esbjornson.
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