The announcement by Alternative Repertory Theatre (ART) that it would include Edward Albee's Three Tall Women this season was greeted with less than rapture in these quarters. The Southern California premiere of the play, which earned Albee his third Pulitzer Prize, played some five years ago at the Mark Taper Forum. It was an experience that only a somnambulist could appreciate—dreary and lifeless, the type of thing that justifiably gives theater a bad name.
In light of this history, I brought my pillow and Teletubby pajamas to ART's Santa Ana venue. If nothing else, I figured to get a nice nap. Instead, I experienced one of those always-welcome theatrical perception benders. It's still hard to view Three Tall Womenas a dramatic masterpiece, but this deeply affecting production indicates there is a play here—a very good play at that.
The play features three actresses playing characters 92, 52 and 26 years old. In the first act, the oldest (simply named A) is a sickly, senile, mean-spirited invalid patiently attended to by B, her nurse. A bickers, accuses, cries, wets herself and stumbles through foggy reminiscences, to the consternation of C, a 26-year-old representative from the old bird's law firm. C is there to find out why important papers aren't being signed and returned to the office. Though repulsed by A's deteriorating physical and mental condition, C grows increasingly absorbed by A's memories.
In the second act, the play's form radically shifts. A dummy of the old lady lies on the bed as the same three characters take the stage. We now see they're not different people at all, but rather manifestations of the same woman at different stages of life—youth, maturity and old age. How the brittle, bitter woman now lying on the bed became who and what she is, and how the various selves question—and battle—that transformation provides the very involving conflict in this play.
Albee wrote the play as a benediction of sorts to his mother—albeit one of the more acidic, devastatingly frank benedictions ever written. Albee's relationship with his mother was awful. She disinherited him, in large part because of his sexuality, and reportedly told him many times that she wished she had never adopted him.
But Three Tall Women isn't a revenge play, especially in this artful production. Laurie Freed's coherent, thoughtful direction and solid cast breathe real humanity into a work that could easily feel sterile and artificial. Sure, A deserves her loneliness; she is the sum total of bad choices made. But we feel deeply for her anyhow. The commingling of pride, desperation and denied opportunities that each of the three women in this play experience creates one towering character.
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Myrna Niles' A spits fire:she is positively radiant at moments as the bitter, broken invalid in the first act and the prideful matriarch in the second. She's funny, hateful and eminently watchable. Peggy Johns-Campbell is just as effective as the youngest member of the troika. Working with the most thinly written character, Johns-Campbell winds up driving this play, particularly in the second act, when she demands to know how she could ever wind up settling for so little. Both performances are finely crafted.
The weak link is Jeanne Dubuque Walters' B. She has her moments, but they never amount to much of a character. Her shifts of character are too big, and her real hatred for her son in the second act feels groundless.
Albee's ending still feels hollow, like a half-hearted stab implying that you reach the happiest stage of life when you realize it's time to let go. It's a greeting-card sentiment, but it's rescued by such fine acting that it makes you wonder if Albee had something else in mind. There's a strain of defiance at work amid this acknowledgment of life's limitations and the fragility of memory, a refusal to surrender to fate. In that sense, this play can be seen as an existential valentine of sorts, hurled across time by one of the most pessimistic playwrights of our time, intended for his mother, himself and his audience.
Three Tall Women at Alternative Repertory Theatre, 125 N. Broadway, Ste. B, Santa Ana, (714) 836-7929. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Also Thurs., Oct. 7 & Oct. 14, 8 p.m.; and Sat., Oct. 23, 30 & Nov. 6, 2 p.m. Through Nov. 6. $22-$25.