Theater Review:

Three Tall Women at Center Stage: Two Out of Three Are Spectacular

Review by Howard Gradet

Three Tall Women
by Edward Albee
directed by Tim Vasen,
at Center Stage (Pearlstone Theater) through Feb. 10

Okay, let me say this right up front: I think in "Three Tall Women," Edward Albee has written the best American play of the last 65 years. For breadth of theme, depth of thought, simplicity of presentation, and purity of writing, are there any plays in the 20th century canon to top "Three Tall Women" and "Our Town"? I don't think so.
(l.-r.) Patricia Hodges and Scotty Bloch deliver powerful performances in "Three Women."

Having said that, I should add that Center Stage's production, while not entirely perfect, is probably the finest they have given us in years.

The play begins as simplicity itself: a bedroom that reeks of upper East Side money and taste, and three women: the 92-year-old woman who lives here, her 52-year-old house-keeper/attendant, and the 26-year-old lawyer's representative who has come because papers must be signed. Albee designates the three women by letter only; the old woman is A; the attendant is B; the lawyer's rep is C.

In Scotty Bloch's subtle and perceptive performance, A is by turns domineering, fretful, querulous, bigoted, childlike and childish. It's uncomfortable being around her in her dotage, and when she was younger and more in control of her world, she was probably intolerable. From all accounts she is Albee's mother, but his art makes her all mothers. Okay, maybe your mother didn't receive a diamond bracelet quite the way this one did, but then again maybe she did...

Patricia Hodges' B seems to transcend mere acting. Hodges works in a sphere of being that is completely convincing. Her attendant is weary and competent, and wise to the way of the world. She is able to explain A to C, and shield A from C. There is not one false move, nothing overstated or missed.

Only Anne Louise Zachry's performance disappoints. Maybe in other circumstances her C would seem real; in the company of Bloch and Hodges, Zachry comes off as mannered and uncomfortable in her gestures and general body movements. Especially in Act Two, when the three women should seem similar, her mannerisms lack the subtlety and grace Bloch and Hodges seem to project effortlessly.

In the first act we learn about A, at least what she remembers in her moments of clarity, and what B can tell us/C about the woman's life as she's learned it. It is very typical Albee—the elegant language, the lightning humor and the ironic game-playing we recognize from "Virginia Woolf," "A Delicate Balance," and "Tiny Alice"—and its very familiarity reminds us that in American drama Albee is the master of elegant vitriol. It's almost comforting to realize that forty years into his career, Albee still has what made him great.

At the end of the first act, however, A has a stroke, and when we come back from intermission, we are no longer in A's bedroom, we are someplace...else.

John Coyne's beautiful first act set follows Albee's stage directions, right down to the general color scheme of mostly cool blues (what would you expect from this woman? Yellow?) One change, however, becomes an important visual element in Act Two: instead of the nineteenth century French paintings Albee specifies, the focus in Coyne's room is a blue-white-gray Rothko which becomes the entire back wall in act two, suggesting that we are in the mind of A as she lies in a coma.

It is this second act that lifts an already excellent play into the realm of greatness, as the three women of act one become A at three times in her life: Meg Neville's costumes immediately identify the time in which these women live: 1920's (C); 1950's (B) and 1990's (A), just before her descent into becoming the querulous old woman we met in Act One.

And Albee, at the height of his powers (so far), gives us the entire arc of a human being's life, from the youthful belief that you will live forever, through middle age when you stand at the pinnacle, "Old enough to be a little wise, past being really dumb...[knowing] that there's a lot I don't have to go through anymore...the only time you get a three-hundred-sixty-degree view...Wow! What a view!" to old age when you are the most "you" you have ever been, just before you begin the inevitable final decline.

Albee gets all this, gets it in the sense of understanding the process, and also in the sense of being able to put it down on paper, and in getting it gives it to us, life as we live it and think it, our past, our present and our future.

Director Tim Vasen's staging is intelligent and unintrusive; while it looks like nothing much is happening, there are moments of staging and visual insights that take your breath away: at the end of Act One, A is in the bed; B has moved to A's chair, having placed A's pillow at the small of her own back; C is standing at the door. The basic character of each is here: A has moved to the last position in the game; B has moved "up" into A's spot, understanding and accepting the inevitable transition; C is still trying to escape.

Also, notice the pearls in Act Two, a touch that improves on the original New York production, where each woman wore pearls, but with no overarching sense of visual connection other than that they all wore pearls. But here, the young C wears a single strand, B wears a double strand, and A is tastefully encrusted with them.

Touches like these attest to the intelligence and sensitivity Center Stage brings to this production.

The relationship between Albee and his mother will probably be thesis and dissertation fodder for decades if not centuries, but Albee himself has turned that difficult reality into the pure gold of artistic greatness, and in giving us this work of art, Center Stage does not disappoint.

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This story was published on February 6, 2002.