Stage Door Review

Three Tall Women

Friday, August 27, 2021

✭✭✭✭

by Edward Albee, directed by Diana Leblanc

Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford

August 19-October 9, 2021

A: “I can’t remember what I can’t remember”

The current Stratford Festival production of Three Tall Women is likely the best production of a play at this year’s Festival. It helps that this is one of the finest plays by Edward Albee (1928-2016). Albee may be best known for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), but in Three Tall Women (1991) Albee foregoes the Strindbergian marital fireworks of the earlier play to focus in a neo-absurdist manner on the most fundamental questions of life. It helps that the play’s central role is played by one of the last surviving theatrical legends of the Festival, Martha Henry, and that she is supported by Lucy Peacock, who has had one of the longest careers at the Festival after Henry. It also helps that unlike all the other plays at this year’s Festival, Three Tall Women is staged indoors and is unamplified so that the actors’ voices strike the ear without mediation thus allowing us access to all the nuances of the actors’ interpretations.

The play really has no action but consists of the conversations of three women whom Albee has named simply A, B and C. A (Martha Henry) is 92 and the set represents her elegant bedroom. B (Lucy Peacock) is 52 and is A’s caregiver. C (Mamie Zwettler) is 26 and is a representative from A’s lawyer who has been sent to see A in order to have her sign some papers. In the realist Act 1, A holds forth throughout the entire act with B and C restricted to simple comments on what A is saying. In the surrealist Act 2 we finally hear more from B and C. A still has much to say but the dialogue seems more equally portioned among the three.

In Act 1 A principally rambles on to B and C about the story of her life though she tells her tale impressionistically, one theme giving rise to the next, rather than chronologically. A is physically decrepit (her left arm is falling apart), demented with periods of lucidity and emotionally labile. She holds our attention because we become ever more interested in trying to fit the pieces of her life together. But she will drift off topic and suddenly wonder what she was talking about. Or suddenly one of her obsessions, such as her certainty that everyone is stealing from her, will interrupt the flow of her speech. Sometimes, to her great embarrassment, she will realize she has to use the loo and will have to be helped there by B.

What emerges is the story of two sisters – A being the taller and more successful, the other being prettier but becoming a drunk. We learn of A’s wild girlhood but of her prudence in waiting for just the right man to come along. This happened to a one-eyed man, much shorter than A, who made her laugh and showered her with wealth. She took up his passion for riding and she bore him a son. Both A and her husband had affairs but after A’s son learned of her fling with a groom, he left home never to be seen for 20 years.

The departure of her son has embittered her life. She hates him for having left without a word. She detests his homosexuality. Yet, underneath she knows she loves him. Neither A nor B can stand C because she’s young and, they assume, ignorant. Yet, when C has the chance to suggest that A put her finances in order, B swings over to C’s side against A. Act 1 ends with A having a stroke after having been put to bed by B. B decides she must call A’s son.

In Act 2 the question of where we are and who the characters are becomes more complex. In Act 1 Francesca Callow’s set presented us with A’s handsome bedroom in a fully realistic mode. In Act 2, Louise Guinand’s ethereal lighting reveals that the painted wallpaper that covered the entire back wall now has slits in it and the doors do not seem firmly set into the wall. Even more bizarre, tall, thin trees that feature as motifs in the wallpaper are now growing at various spots inside the bedroom. In the second floor of the stage we see through a translucent curtain an effigy of Martha Henry as A (not a very good one) as she appeared at the end of Act 1. Kneeling at her bedside is a Young Man (Andrew Iles in a silent role), whom we assume is A’s son spoken of but never seen in Act 1.

B and C begin the act with C insisting that she is never going to be “that”, referring to the effigy of A on the second floor. B’s mocking of this idea and C’s insistence on it continue until A, now dressed in a shimmering beige pantsuit enters through the wall.

Where precisely we are is now in great doubt. A speaks of observing the Young Man’s actions in her room after her death. On the other hand, when C vows that she will never be like B or A and B vows that she will never be like A, we have the strong feeling that A, immobile because of the stroke, is reviewing the various decisions and attitudes she had during her life and is imagining herself as ages 26 and 52 in the form of the C and B who were with her when she had her stroke.

In literature Canada’s own Michel Tremblay anticipated the idea of the self at various ages debating with itself in his play Albertine in Five Times (Albertine, en cinq fois) in 1984. Albee has reduced the number of selves from five to the far more symbolic three representing youth, middle age and old age. The subject matter in Albee’s play is also more general and asks some of the most basic questions about life such as whether it has any purpose or worth and how best to live the life that fate has handed out. In both plays the irony of what the young hope for and what they achieve is very strong.

Martha Henry gives what amounts to a masterclass in acting with her performance. It is simply magnificent. The layers of meaning she is able to generate through shifts in tone and volume of voice are amazing. Since A is so emotionally complex, Henry impresses with the precision of her ability to veer from lucidity to fogginess, placidity to anger, pride to embarrassment. A dominates Albee’s text and Henry is a marvel to watch.

Albee gives B less to do, but Peacock commands the character’s weary, cynical tone in Act 1 toward C and her effortful jollying tone toward A when she has to get her to take any action. In Act 2 Peacock has more of a chance to show us B as a character exactly midway between the innocence and confidence of C and the wisdom born of letting go of hope that A possesses.

While both Henry and Peacock represent the style of acting with the voice that used to predominate at Stratford, Zwettler as C is not yet in command of that technique. She gives us one emotion succeeding another rather than layers of simultaneous emotions. Nevertheless, her style is well suited to a character whose sophistication is proved false and who is totally ignorant of how time and misadventure can reshape a personality.

One could not hope to see a production with more nuanced direction than that of Diana Leblanc in this play. Besides this, seeing this play in the intimate space of Stratford's Studio Theatre is far superior to seeing it in a large theatre like the Royal Alex as when the Broadway production toured to Toronto in 1996. This production of Three Tall Women would received my highest accolade except for one thing – there is a three hour interval between the end of Part 1 and the beginning of Part 2, each of which is only an hour long.

The Stratford Festival brochure states, “In keeping with our pandemic precautions, we present the play’s two parts ... as separate performances, scheduled to be seen on the same day”. Why Stratford uses Covid as its excuse for a three hour intermission is hard to fathom. At the Shaw Festival Sherlock Holmes and the Raven’s Curse has been on stage indoors since July 24 running 2 hours 35 minutes with one intermission and Charley’s Aunt has been on stage indoors since August 8 running 2 hours 35 minutes with two intermissions. How can Stratford's “pandemic precautions” be so different from the Shaw’s? Besides this, the Stratford brochure claims: “Due to the intense nature of the play we regret that we are unable to re-admit anyone exiting during the performance”. If the Festival were really concerned about maintaining intensity it would hardly sanction a three hour interval which is quite long enough for the intensity generated in Part 1 to dissipate by the start of Part 2.

Other than this difficulty with the interval, I really don’t expect to see a finer production Three Tall Women or as great a performance of A again. For those reasons the current Three Tall Women is truly worth the time and effort necessary to see it.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Mamie Zwettler as C, Martha Henry as A and Lucy Peacock as B; Martha Henry as A; Mamie Zwettler as C, Martha Henry as A, Andrew Iles as the Young Man and Lucy Peacock as B; Lucy Peacock as B. © 2021 V. Tony Hauser.

For tickets visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.