Three Tall Women challenges & compels!
Bit of playwright background : Edward Albee is pure laine Western in his orientation., He knows neurotic. Three things we fret over (& over & over & over) primarily, all biggies : death, time, and the pursuit of happiness. Sub-sets would be one's place or station in a competitive, condescending, churlish culture. Neurotic about one's contribution to or profit from the so-called "American Dream". Neurotic about memory of who did what to whom when.
The overall picture, usually, is not pretty or reassuring. And no playwright understands this as intuitively, perhaps, as Albee. He, recall, was made famous on Main Street by the Richard Burton / Elizabeth Taylor childless couple in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. In it they immortalized Albee's recurring motif in their black-&-white snapshot of life's degradation in 1966. Little did they know their roles showed how we were all perched on an epochal doorstep -- post-modern cynicism. That's the legacy we've lived with since. (Others, more kindly, prefer to call it our "lapsed idealism" instead.)
In Three Tall Women (1991) we watch age as it has unfolded since the Liz & Dick time from 25 years earlier. To this viewer there is no question whatever : in TTW Albee creates a masterpiece. A masterpiece on three levels : an existential 20th century slice of life; insight into one woman's psyche from three perspectives; a dramatic structure that fractures the normal dimensions of space and time as we rely on them to be.
The three characters are known as A, B, and C as they interact on stage. C is 26. B is 52. A is 92 but claims, whimsically, to be just 91 -- what a smirky C supposes is "some tiny victory" that A may be struggling to claim over aging.
Plot overview : In Act I we find A (Anna Hagan) a near-invalid pre-demential grandmother being cared for in her well-appointed apartment. B (Beatrice Zeilinger) is her caregiver, 52. C (Meaghan Chenosky) is A's assigned lawyer, 26, an associate from a big downtown law firm whose founder Harry died some 30 years back just before A's husband Earl did.
The act focuses on A recalling the nine decades of her life in snitches and snatches. B is solicitous and patient, for the most part, looking after A's wet nappies, her broken arm, her incessant yada-yada. Not so C. She's the ingenue, a cheeky young adult in her law office uniform who in a moment of atypical condour checks herself : "Why can't I be nice...?"
When C reacts challengingly to a story A is telling, B chides her : "Let it be." She says "Let it be" lots. A, for her part, is all about the past-made-present, as it is for many in their latter years. "Who likes anybody any more?" she demands. "People all turn out not to be what they were meant to be."
Her height, her folks, her hubby, her horses, her jewelry, her sister (the drunk) -- on-&-on A prattles : I don't know what I'm saying, what am I saying?" she wonders. Shortly she clarifies : "I remember, but it comes and goes. I think I know then I don't know what I don't know...I don't know if I loved (Earl) -- I can't remember. I can't remember what I can't remember."
Obviously A is the once-bright matriarch starting to fade into the penumbra of Alzheimer's emerging shadows. She's rich. When she reflects on her life it's not unusual that there should be pride, regret, whimsy, guilt, quashed hopes, paranoia that everyone is out to get her money. Many a life has been punctuated quite so.
Albee tries to unpack all this for us. Can we admit it? In the end our life's story looks and feels and smells just as it was each squishy messy step. The only way out is to not set yourself up. Only you can avoid the disappointment that comes when dreams end. How? Three Tall Women tries that question on for size.
Enter Act II : Act I ends with A having a stroke and put on a ventilator in her apartment bed. In Act II Albee turns all of Act I on its head and puts A's irrepressible yak into perspective.
There are now two A's. The one comatose under covers on the bed. And a second one, the "resuscitated" matriarch, still kompas mentis and lively, late 80's-ish. B has morphed into what was the 52-year-old version of A, i.e. A as she was three decades earlier. And C, the 26-year-old, is both A and B as a 26-year-old.
Oh. And then there's "the Boy" (Matt Reznek). He is the son of these women / this woman. Boy says nothing in the play. Ever. Just takes up space ostensibly suffering and grieving over the near-dead body of A lying under covers on the bed. But lots is said about him. The ambulatory aging A is forgiving-ish. Middle-age B can't stand the sight of him and wants him gone. C is curious : at 26 she has yet to meet Earl and marry him and have Boy. She wants to know all about him.
What a clever, nay brilliant, conceit by Albee. Three women hover over the near-corpse of "herself" as they reflect with and for one another on what was happening for each of them at that earlier part of their collective life. C insists she can avoid fate : "I won't become this!" she spits at both herself at mid-life (B) and at her late self (A). They talk about Earl. Each of them asks, "Why did I marry him?" he, the short Jew with the small pee-pee who cheated on "them". Answer from one of them to the others : "Because he loved tall women, and you liked short men!"
Turns out Boy left, abruptly, after witnessing Mom getting it on in the stable hay mow with a groomsman. B can't forgive because Boy just "packed up his attitudes and left" and didn't re-surface for 20 years. Guilt no doubt spurs her on. A is more kindly : "We never do (forgive)," she admits, "but we play the game."
B now admits to the horseplay with the groomsman. "It starts as revenge, then self-pity, then it turns into pleasure for its own sake -- he rides us the way it was in the pornos and we scream!" B foretells C who shudders and denies, again, that she will turn out that way. "How you got to be her is one thing, how you get to be me is another," A tells her. C protests : "I will not become you, I will not, I deny you, I deny you!"
Words. Words that gurgle and burble and tumble over one another. Like David Mamet and Harold Pinter, Edward Albee is all about words. Words that repeat and repeat and repeat as they bump into one another : "I was tall, I was tall, I used to be tall but I shrunk." "Mother, or was it Father, was always strict and fair, strict and fair." "Sis never had an eye out for the men, I always had an eye out for them, you need to have an eye out...".
In the end, finally, A takes it all in and just laughs at B and C and Boy in a single sweep, mimicking C's last "I deny...!" outburst : "I deny you, you deny me, and of course we all deny each other...!" she says, barely hiding a snigger, and then draws all three together.
Fact is karma is karma. We can deny what was. We can deny what might be. But we can't deny what is. And, in the end, Albee reminds us, is is all that is. This moment. Not our memories or our projections, our days gone by or our days yet to come. Just this. In all its thisness. There is nothing more, nothing less, nothing other.
Production values astound : That Anna Hagan is a long-time friend is irrelevant. Her performance as A in this piece is simply astonishing. Watching her every facial grin and grimace, every wee twitch of her body -- "Don't you dare touch me!" she yells at B in Act I -- her glee at breaking a glass so B will have to clean it up, her yelp when C manhandles her broken elbow, her aged crippled hobble to the loo, her knowing looks and giggles and wise calmness in Act II when B or C blows a gasket over past or future events -- watching these ever-so-subtle nuances sent shivers through me. Such skill and deftness and precision simply cannot be taught. They are learned over decades, they are also innate. This is star power on display, a nonpareil performance.
Beatrice Zeilinger gives viewers a rich and rounded turn as B, quite different in persona as between acts. Her shout at Boy to get out of her house now! brought a lump to my throat. Meaghan Chenosky gave an equally convincing and compelling performance as C. Her nascent career will up! up! up! no question whatever.
The 8th storey room in the Performing Arts Lodges at 581 Cardero where Western Gold Theatre performs is a gem of a space. Up close and personal, it was made doubly welcoming in TTW by the sumptuous Plaza Suite-style set of Glenn MacDonald (assisted by R. Todd Parker). The costume designs by Naomi Lazarus -- perfect surname given the play -- were simply terrific, particularly the Act II time-period dress of the three women representing style during their respective decades of the last century.
Who gonna like : Forty years back as a fledgling high school drama teacher for a few seasons, I loved the small-set stuff of Pinter, Albee, Mamet, Ionesco, Beckett. Let others do their musicals and big-set extravaganzas, I felt. For me it was "the words", always "the words" -- get them just right and the elbow-close coffee house theatre venue would abound in resonance and dramatic impact, laughs and tears and pathos. So it is with veteran director Terence Kelly's remarkable and superbly-coached ensemble that is, now, on this intimate stage at this moment. Until November 9th.