Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Three Tall Women
Albee's drama debuted in Vienna in 1991, opened Off-Broadway in 1994, and won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The speaking characters are A, B, and Cseparate and distinct in act one, but radically recast as figures in the mind of a dying woman in act two, becoming her younger selves, in this two hour and fifteen minute show. Jan Meyer plays the 91(or 92) year-old A, riveting in the first half. In terror of her own pain and infirmity, she glances out with stark uneasiness, her worried eyes like twin solar eclipses, suggesting some worse harbinger just over our own heads, or just behind our backs.
The dynamics of her change over time remain nebulous, but we are ultimately delivered into a fresh state of grace by Albee's final meditation on death. He was 63 when the play debuted, and still living through the height of the AIDS epidemic (he died in 2016 at the ripe old age of 88). Under Mr. Bell's direction, the characters are vividly stung at being caught in the moment, or lost at sea in unsolvable conundrums. But the subtext of Albee's twenty-fifth play centers on women as care-takers, with B (Donna M. Parrone) as a 52-year-old personal assistant in act one, and C (Angela Bubash) as a 26-year-old law clerk.
Their ages are like dots on a graph, or "X's" in a datebook. And in act two, representing A's middle years, Ms. Parrone blossoms like a grotesque tropical flower, corrupted by wealth and power. Ms. Bubash is defiant in a rare dramatic turn, as the youngest. She observes the other two and wonders how she could ever proceed from a romantic disposition to such strident, self-absorbed cynicism. Knowing laughter in the audience becomes inevitable. But the older women, luxuriating in their sumptuous wealth in act two, are not immune to spoofing eitherspending much of the time shrieking as if they'd been robbed of one thing or another. Visibly offended by the dark alchemy of time, C declares her own independence from Fate.
It's simultaneously a commercially appealing celebration of a woman's lifetime of courage and testing, and an entrancing group portrait of that same person's anguish, self-hatred, dashed idealism, and a mind and body falling apart. "Wait till you're older," in various phrasings, is a steady comic refrain aimed at the girlish C. But her own contrary line of dialog, "Isn't salvation in forgetting," is slipped into the fray unnoticed. In that same aging and forgetting, the body of evidence against one's self also wears away. And what's left is a very separate peace, as a castaway who remembers too late her own broken promises. The compelling action, made human by these gifted actresses, sometimes resembles a mad tea party. And sometimes it looks like Dangerous Liaisons by way of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. (And why didn't I notice that connection before, in Albee's most famous work?).
Roles reverse entirely: Ms. Bubash is a legalistic pest about paperwork in act one, and becomes beautiful inside and out in act two; Ms. Parrone glows with compassion in the first half, but adopts a dowager-in-waiting's monstrousness after a 10-minute intermission. And Ms. Meyer, in danger of falling apart before our eyes, suddenly ages backwards to become gracious and convivial once more. In that sense it's all a flirtation with the audience, and everything you want to believe about yourself. But from the mouth of Edward Albee, it's undeniably seductive.
Stephen Henley, an equally splendid actor, has a non-speaking role as the prodigal son. The two older characters, A and B, have railed against him throughout, tearing a passion to rags over his homosexuality and their deep horror of it, as women to the manor bred. His wordless performance is a bit of a Rorschach test: first he seems mournful, then perhaps even relieved a long battling relationship is nearly over. A Hamletian introspection runs in the family, and later, like a Shakespearean prince, he is haunted to see A's spirit in the room, as an ingenious accretion of wisdom asserts itself. In similar fashion, the people she wassimple and flawedcome together to hold her up in the final moment.
Stray Dog Theatre's Three Tall Women runs through February 22, 2020 at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave., St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, visit www.straydogtheatre.org.
Cast (in order of appearance:)