Right from the start, let me say: this is a biased look at Edward Albee's play Three Tall Women, which opened at the Royal Alexandra Theatre on April 16 and runs through May 25.
I have loved many of Albee's plays for over 30 years. Some have also had a direct influence on my life. It was in 1962 when I say the opening of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf on Broadway with that great actress Uta Hagen. I was still desperately trying to make my marriage work with my former husband, and it was strange that we chose to see this play together.
We were mesmerized watching the husband and wife, George and Martha in a deadly game of one upmanship, dueling to the death. It was right then, in the theatre, I turned to my husband and said in horror, That is us. We must get a divorce now, or we won't survive. " Although the drinking was not our problem, the fighting certainly was, and it was constant. Albee saved my life. When I met him recently, he told me most people recognize other friends in the characters, but rarely have the courage to see themselves.
Then, I saw Three Tall Women in New York City and watched the life of an angry, bigoted manipulative woman of 92 (or was it 91?) unravel on stage; caught in the drama and excruciating honesty of this portrayal of Albee's adoptive mother. At that time, I was uncomfortable with this character because it stirred up all the anger I felt about my own mother, which I mistakenly thought was put to rest. I had written my autobiography, and she lives in those pages...but not in my mind anymore. I never believed I would see Three Tall Women again.
Then this Pulitzer prize winner for drama was coming to Toronto, with a superb cast. Perhaps at this stage of my life, I would be at a different place, able to gain new insights. For those who have not seen the play as yet, let me explain more carefully the structure, and how it focuses on the portrayal of his adoptive mother. She threw him out of a luxurious home at age 16 when she found out he was a homosexual. Albee only calls the characters A, B, and C. In the first act you assume they represent three different women - A: the cantankerous, bigoted manipulative mother at 92 (or only 91 as she insists). B: is the middle-aged housekeeper/companion at age 52, and C: a young lawyer visiting to help straighten out the finances of A. Understand?
Well, that sets up the play, but it is in the second act you begin to realize that A, B, and C are really all stages of the same woman. This device allows you to see the development of A and how she became so destructive; then you can decide whether you can emphasize at all, as Albee insists he can, to some extent.
It is an excruciatingly honest play. Albee reiterated to me this is not a revenge play, not a catharsis and not a desire to "come to terms" with his feelings toward his adoptive mother. He admits a grudging respect for her sense of pride and he was touched by the survivor in here as she moved into her 90's. He still declares he loathed her prejudices and her paranoia's.
What is wonderful about this production is the cast, who illuminate the text. Marian Seldes takes on the role of A and she is a triumph. In January 1996, she was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame, after 50 years of winning numerous awards, playing with the greats like Judith Anderson and Tallulah Bankhead. She says Albee is one of her favorite playwrights, in part because he finds the rhythms, the cadence in speech, in almost a musical way.
Michael Learned who plays B achieved national recognition as Olivia Walton in the series The Waltons...but deserves so much more for her enormous body of work in theatre.
Christina Rouner plays C who also performed this role off Broadway, and has a solid theatrical background. She did her undergraduate work in medieval history at Yale and is a graduate of Julliard School.
Michael Rhodes who plays "the boy"; to sit mutely by the deathbed of his mother, presumably representing Edward Albee. This is a production not to be missed, leaving you with memories even beyond the play.
One other treat was the chance to speak to that famous playwright of the war years, Garson Kanin who was escorting his wife Marian Seldes. He has always been known to love strong women; his former wife was the late and wonderful Ruth Gordon. He achieved fame with his Broadway hit of 1946, Born Yesterday with Judy Holliday. Those were the years! He married Marian six years ago. Three Tall Women came to Toronto with a wonderful cast and will leave memories of the wonderful people who also came to visit.
-- By Lynne Gordon
The Theatre News