The Lady from Dubuque occupies its own dark corner in the trajectory of Edward Albee’s career as a playwright. A notorious flop when it opened on Broadway in January of 1980, it has languished in obscurity since then, unseen and unloved. Aside from a production in Hartford, Connecticut, several months after the Broadway debacle and a few scattered European productions, the play hasn’t received a major staging since its premiere. The Seattle Repertory Theatre’s current production, overseen by artistic director David Esbjornson, offers theatergoers an opportunity to judge for themselves the merits of this little-known Albee work. (Another production currently rehearsing in London features Dame Maggie Smith in the title role under the direction of Anthony Page.)

At the time this play debuted, Albee was the world-famous author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and other celebrated plays, including Tiny Alice, A Delicate Balance, and Seascape (the latter two earned Pulitzer Prizes). Yet like fellow titans of American theater Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, he was perceived at the time to be in decline: increasingly less productive, less commercially successful, out of critical favor. The first production of The Lady from Dubuque received harsh reviews and closed after only 12 performances – an astonishingly brief run for a playwright of Albee’s stature. His next two plays, the 1981 adaptation of Lolita and his 1983 The Man Who Had Three Arms, suffered the same humiliating fate: bad reviews, equally short runs. 

It would be ten years before Albee opened another play in New York. Three Tall Women won Albee a third Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1994. And it would be twenty years between the low period in the early 1980s and his return to Broadway with The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, which received the Tony Award for best play of the season in 2002. Those plays revived his reputation and returned him to the forefront of American theater artists.

Those familiar with Albee’s best-known plays will recognize the territory in which The Lady from Dubuque takes place: a living room where one married couple hosts two others for extended bouts of game-playing, philosophical conversation, and sometimes-nasty emotional wrangling. In fact, the play begins with echoes of Virginia Woolf. It’s midnight, everybody has been drinking a little too much for a little too long, nerves are frayed, and there’s an unsettling tension in the air. It’s not spoiling anything to say that the party atmosphere is meant to distract everyone in the room from the fact that the hostess, Jo, is dying of cancer. 

Although at first we seem to be watching a fairly standard living-room drama, The Lady from Dubuque departs from the conventions of naturalistic theater in two ways. Almost immediately, the people onstage start turning to the audience and speaking to us directly, which the other characters hear and acknowledge rather than pretending they didn’t. And halfway through, Elizabeth and Oscar – a white woman and a black man, elegantly dressed -- appear from outside “the reality of the play” and enter the story, making the characters and the audience puzzle over who they are and what they’re there for. These elements go back to the origins of theater in Greek dramatic festivals, where the chorus routinely addressed the audience and where other-worldly figures frequently appeared to wrap up, alter, or bless the events of the play (the deus ex machina). 

Strangely, these breaking-through-the-fourth-wall devices and the characters’ philosophical musings about identity and reality – elements that link Albee’s theater to that of predecessors like Pirandello, O’Neill, and Beckett -- seem to have instigated most of the negative reaction from critics of the original Broadway production, who called the play “hollow,” “obtuse,” “pretentious,” and “tedious.” Edith Oliver, in The New Yorker, wrote a review that best represents the objections that critics raised when first seeing The Lady from Dubuque

I resent the insertion into a play about real people – about people, that is, whom we have been invited to pay attention to because they bear with us the burden of being human – of creatures who pretend, for reasons that they may or may not consent to reveal, to be of our species but who are, we gradually perceive, embodiments of Death, or Life-in-Death, or one of a hundred other tiresome hand-me-down literary abstractions. Death is the harshest fact we know, not to be mitigated for us by the presence of superior Others from out There; my intelligence, as well as my good nature, is taken advantage of when death is depicted as a creaky knight in armor, or a nice old man in a tree, or (who knows?) a lady from Dubuque, who is neither a lady nor from Dubuque…With never a word of warning we have been pitched headlong into the maddeningly calculated ambiguities of all those plays – one thinks of Eliot’s The Cocktail Party – that make audiences ashamed of their ineptitude. What unworthy simpletons we must be not to savor the delicacy of these delightful theologicometaphysical games of cat and mouse?

Without having seen the original Broadway production, it’s hard to understand how reasonably intelligent New York theater critics could have missed what is perfectly obvious to anyone reading The Lady from Dubuque now: that underneath the external events of the plot, it is a play about denial. True, the characters in the play are not especially likeable, and some of them are annoying, even despicable. Death and dying are painful subjects to address, dredging up emotions that we would avoid if we could. And Albee, unsentimental observer of human foibles and literary sophisticate that he is, doesn’t make the play easy for audiences to watch. No character announces the play’s themes; no one makes speeches that sum up the truth so we can sit back and passively receive them. The playwright forces us to look inside ourselves to identify with the characters as they strenuously avoid knowing what they know and seeing what they see. 

Even when the Angel of Death walks onstage to slap them awake, they continue playing silly games and asking idiotic questions, anything to avoid facing the fact that their dear friend is dying before their eyes of an incurable disease, not to mention that they themselves will die. And in a way who can blame them? We all have our ways of surrounding ourselves with mundanity and trivia (shopping, American Idol) to shield us from facing essential truths about life, love, loss, death, and suffering. It would seem obvious that wisdom usually comes from facing pain rather than running away from it, and yet we don’t. This condition is as old as civilization – the characters in The Lady from Dubuque ask the same questions (“Who am I?” “Who are you?”) that run through Oedipus Rex – and as current as the headlines from today’s newspaper. Considering that reporter Bob Woodward’s most recent book on the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq is called State of Denial, perhaps audiences today are more primed than ever to understand The Lady from Dubuque.

Director David Esbjornson has had his eye on the play for a few years now. He first established a relationship with Edward Albee in the fall of 2000, when he was simultaneously preparing to direct Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, with a cast that included Patrick Stewart and Mercedes Ruehl, and the American premiere of The Play About the Baby at New York’s Century Center for the Performing Arts. (He would go on to direct the world premiere of The Goat on Broadway.) While in Virginia Woolf the living-room setting is naturalistic and the baby is imaginary, The Play About the Baby takes place on a virtually bare stage; the characters are Boy and Girl, a young fresh-faced married couple with a new baby, and Man and Woman, two sophisticated older people who steal the baby and then convince the youngsters there never was a baby, when they’re not addressing the audience with a vaudevillean directness. Working on these two plays side-by-side gave Esbjornson a unique opportunity to immerse himself in the theatrical and philosophical ideas that have preoccupied Albee for more than 40 years.

After the success of these productions, Esbjornson approached Albee about reviving The Lady from Dubuque, applying to that play what he’d learned from staging The Play About the Baby. In particular, he had some clues about how to cast the right spell to engage the audience in the theatrical reality of the play so they’re not lulled into passively receiving it, the way one watching a TV sitcom or a conventional play with a living-room set. “What I found fascinating is that you have to entirely invent the terrain, the subtext,” the director said recently. “You almost have to find a moment-to-moment reality for yourself that makes sense for the play and the characters. At the same time, it can’t necessarily be a logical process. It has to be intuitive. You have to be really careful with the way the characters talk to the audience. The reality onstage and the reality with the audience have to be equal. The audience has to feel like another character, surprised and engaged but not let off the hook. And the performers have to feel as comfortable with the audience as with their fellow actors. It takes a lot of preparation and sharpness to pull that off.”

The director is banking on the assumption that since 1980 audiences have caught up to both the theatrical style and the dramatic substance of The Lady from Dubuque. “It could be that the subject is too difficult. A play about somebody dying is not what folks want to see. But I think if it’s done really well, it could be harrowing and theatrical and worth watching. As with a lot of Albee’s plays, there’s a kind of denial going on – people having their own agendas and hiding behinds facades and masks and ignoring what’s literally happening in the room. It’s a metaphor for our country and the way we tend to handle things, ignoring what’s right in front of us.”

Sidebar on the original production of The Lady from Dubuque:

Original title: In early stages of development, the play was called The Substitute Speaker. In that version, Jo died at the end of the first act, and in the second act Sam dressed up in her clothes to assume her identity, becoming “the substitute speaker.”

Inspiration: Albee drew upon Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s 1969 study On Death and Dying, which introduced the notion that a dying person goes through five stages when diagnosed with a terminal illness: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Origin of the title: Harold Ross, founding editor of The New Yorker, was once asked to describe the average reader of the magazine. He said, “One thing I know, the magazine is not going to be written for the little old lady from Dubuque.” Naming his character after Ross’s imaginary small-town creature was typically whimsical of Albee. The play’s title character is extremely worldly and other-worldly at the same time. “If The New Yorker is written for anyone, it’s written for her,” Albee said.

Original cast: Frances Conroy, the Emmy Award-winning actress who played Ruth Fisher on the popular HBO series Six Feet Under, made her Broadway debut as Jo. Earle Hyman, who played Oscar, and Maureen Anderman, who played Carol, received Tony Award nominations for their performances. Irene Worth, who played Miss Alice in the original production of Albee’s Tiny Alice, got excellent reviews for her performance as Elizabeth. Albee tried hard to persuade Ingrid Bergman to play Elizabeth, and before Irene Worth accepted the role, it was also offered to Colleen Dewhurst and Alexis Smith.

Original director: Alan Schneider, who staged the first American production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, won much acclaim for his directing the premiere of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He directed almost all of Albee’s subsequent plays on Broadway. The Lady from Dubuque was the last Broadway show he staged before his death in 1984.

What went wrong: Quoted in Mel Gussow’s 1999 biography Edward Albee: A Singular Journey, Albee refers to The Lady from Dubuque as “an example of a play that suffered from my drinking.” (Albee stopped drinking in the mid-1980s when he learned he had diabetes.) “I realize that there were problems in the second act that I wasn’t in control enough to solve. I was too rushed. We went into rehearsal too soon. There’s more work to be done on that play. I know exactly what to do to fix it. It’s all clear to me now, but I remember not being sober enough to do the work.” Today the playwright isn’t sure about that statement. “Maybe I was drinking when I said that,” he joked. “I don’t know what the problem was with the original production. It could have been too serious for Broadway. It’s a fairly unrelenting play. It was done not long after Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box, which was a somewhat more glib, easier play about death. I see no need to rewrite. Well, I may change ‘Nixon’ to ‘Bush.’ ”

an edited version of this essay was published in Prologue, the in-house magazine for the Seattle Repertory Theatre, January 2007