A Delicate Balance takes place in the well-appointed living room of Tobias and Agnes and spans less than forty-eight hours. The function of act 1 is to introduce the cast of characters, including one (Julia) who does not appear in that act. Tobias, a successful businessman recently retired, is having an after-dinner drink with his wife. Agnes contemplates, not unpleasantly, what it would be like to go mad, and they discuss Agnes’ alcoholic younger sister, Claire, who lives with them and who soon appears on the scene. When Agnes leaves to phone her daughter, Julia, Tobias and Claire discuss Claire’s alcoholism, Tobias’ friendship with Harry, and the infidelity of both men with the same woman one past July. The discussion, especially Claire’s recounting of her experience at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, exposes a closeness between Claire and Tobias and, at the same time, an antagonism between Claire and Agnes.
Agnes’ return brings with it the announcement that Julia, her fourth marriage having failed, is coming home. Tobias recounts the story of a pet cat he once had that had become indifferent to him; out of frustration over that failed relationship, he had it taken to a veterinarian to be put to death. Both Claire and Agnes try to assuage Tobias’ guilt over the pet’s death, which still haunts him. They hear a car approach, and all are surprised at the sudden visit of Harry and Edna, who try to justify their arrival with halting pleasantries; however, through Edna’s sobs and Harry’s distractedness, the strange truth finally comes out. Sitting at home by themselves, they suddenly became horribly afraid about “nothing.” They appeal to Agnes and Tobias’ sense of friendship to take them in, and Agnes, somewhat quizzically, leads them offstage to rest in what had been Julia’s room. Claire’s final, almost smug, comment to Tobias is that she had wondered when “it” would start.
Act 2, the longest act, has two scenes—one taking place early Saturday evening before dinner, and the other later that night. Julia enters, a girl-woman looking to her parents for the nurture and comfort that she has failed to receive from her marriages. She complains about Harry and Edna having usurped “her” room and is incredulous that neither Agnes nor Tobias has been able to exact concrete information from Harry and Edna about their presence in the household. Julia is frustrated at not receiving the sympathy and condolence she expects from her parents and her aunt. Tobias is...
(The entire section is 1028 words.)