As Agnes -- "the fulcrum of this balancing act" (otherwise known as the family) -- Jane Carmichael has moments of real brilliance that unfortunately alternate with moments of apparent fudging. But her portrayal of a woman who uses a veneer of civility to mask anger and loneliness is haunting and unforgettable.
Kathleen Gerard's Claire, the character most like Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- drunk, uninhibited, and desperate -- brings energy and life to the proceedings, even if her antics are overplayed from time to time.
Martha Ragsdale is Julia, the perpetual adolescent who cannot stay married and who is fated to return home after each disaster. Her whining, amusing at first, gets very old very fast. Her subsequent breakdown, in which she tries to e-vict Harry and Edna by threatening them with a gun, is surprisingly effective, even though Albee exhibits little or no empathy with this character.
Suzanne Voss and Gerald E. Ambinder are Edna and Harry, respectively. They provide convincing portrayals of friends who offer distraction and tip the balance away from the family itself. To be sure, these are the least complicated of the six characters, but both Voss and Ambinder bring a welcome ease and confidence.
In the end, with all the frustrations of a shaky preview, the play remains one of Albee's most enigmatic and fascinating. Luckily for the Chamber Theatre, it's also highly durable and manages to maintain its own delicate balance.
A Delicate Balance runs through Oct. 8 at the Phoenix Theatre in S.F.; call 346-3107.