Early in the beautifully written first act of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, one of the characters says to another, "I remember everything!" To which the other replies, "That must be a burden." Albee, at 68, knows that memory can be a wily, artful thing, and freeing oneself of one's memories can be mean work.
Three Tall Women, Arizona Theatre Company's current production, is a memory play, in which Albee recalls his mother (the late Frances Cotter Albee) and in which a woman, known only as A, remembers her own life. Albee contends that his play--originally staged by the playwright in 1991 in Vienna and then in 1994 in New York to great acclaim--is more than a portrait of the vain, bitter Frances. But the parallels to his own life are plain: The playwright, like the boy in this play, left home as a young man and didn't return until his mother was ill. He was expelled from several prestigious schools, and denounced by his mother for being gay.
There are more resemblances to Albee's life, but this magnificent play does more than evoke the playwright's past: It recalls his exceptional early work and restores him to his proper place as the foremost American dramatist of his generation.
Three Tall Women earned Albee his third--and arguably his most deserved--Pulitzer Prize in 1994, ending a middle period marked by pretentious works (Counting the Ways) and inferior adaptations (Lolita). Like most of Albee's work, Three Tall Women focuses on confrontation and death. Unlike his best-known plays (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Delicate Balance, Seascape), this play is about reconciliation--with oneself and with one's parents--and about hope. It even ends on a hopeful note, with a Restorationlike curtain speech aimed at the audience.
In Act One, A, a meanspirited old bag of 92, recounts her troubled life in halting, emotional monologues: She was once a beauty, married to a wealthy philanderer; her sister became a drunk and her mother an enemy; her husband died and her son abandoned her. Now, she is a confused, incontinent old woman full of anger and invective, attended by B, a nursemaid who fills in A's back story and trumpets her emotions. At the top of Act One, A is telling one of her distracted, meandering tales to B and C, a female lawyer who's there in A's ornate bedroom to have some papers signed. Her story repeatedly dissolves into a bickering match with C, who denounces A's bigotry and derides her memories. In Act Two, Albee shifts gears and the play moves from a portrayal of life and impending death to a meditation on same. Act Two belongs to A, and is transported by a thrilling theatrical device and conveyed by some exquisite acting.
As A, theater veteran Lucille Patton gives an extraordinary performance. She is alternately menacing and vulnerable, hissing and spitting at her lawyer one moment, weeping the next. Whether she is striding across the stage or hunched in a chair, hers is an overwhelming presence.
Patton is matched by Laurie Kennedy as B, a bored matron who holds A's memories but seems to have none of her own. Kennedy's light approach is a delightful contrast to Patton's; she allows B to yield to her employer without abdicating her performance. Her enactment of how she pilfered a stack of silver bowls is truly the funniest moment in the play.
I thought at first that Fiona Davis was overacting in the part of C, misinterpreting the character with a stony, argumentative approach. But after rereading the play, I've decided that Albee wrote C as a naive, callous child. Her impossibly unkind treatment of A, her client, acts as an artful conduit between the first act and the more fallacious second act.
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I should have realized that director Lawrence Sacharow wouldn't have allowed such superfluous histrionics. Sacharow directed the original New York production, and has created here an impeccable tension, particularly in the early scenes between A and C. I won't reveal the device of the play; seeing it enacted is part of the wonderful experience of this play. Suffice to say that, as handled by Sacharow, it is every bit as startling as that moment in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when we discover the truth about Martha and George's remarkable son.
Shortly after that coup is revealed, Albee unveils his standard obsession with death, both real and symbolic. But if he is still presenting people as dying animals (as he did in his first play, The Zoo Story, more than 35 years ago), he's doing it with the grace and agility he displayed at the top of his career.
Arizona Theatre Company's production of Three Tall Women continues through Saturday, November 30, in Center Stage at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe. For more details, see Theatre listing in Thrills.