Three Tall Women is a challenging play. Challenging to stage. Challenging to act. Challenging to watch.
City Theatre’s current production of the Edward Albee Pulitzer Prize-winning drama meets the first two challenges with a well-balanced and talented cast, imaginative and strong direction, and a scrumptious set fitting to the social status of the character(s) involved. The challenge for the audience is to follow the twists and turns in the dialogue as the characters(s) reveal how she(they) came to terms with the twists and turns of her(their) life.
My use of the singular/plural “character(s)” is prompted by Albee’s use of three actress to represent one “tall woman” at three phases of her life. Albee identifies the senior, 92-year-old woman simply as A (played by Judith Laird), her 52-year-old version as B (Tracy Hurd), and the somewhat clueless 26-year-old as C (Jesselyn Parks). The program notes hint that A, B, and C are the same woman, but the dialogue of the first act does not make that absolutely clear. Rather, the impression is that B is A’s long-suffering caretaker and C is a frustrated lawyer with a law firm that handle’s A’s muddled business affairs. It is in Act II that it is where we learn the three are one in the same. C wants to know from A and B the specifics of what happens in the future. B also expresses her interest in learning from A what is to come.
The play has almost no physical action and relatively little demonstratively emotive content. Consequently, it relies on dialogue between and among the three representations of the “tall woman” and monologues by each. This is the challenge for the audience: to listen carefully to what is being said. Each actresses delivers her lines articulately and with an appropriate level of emotion – tears, anger, blandness – in the few instances where it is called for. It is a testament to director Andy Berkoysky’s firm hand that the actresses made the conversations sound real.
Ms. Laird, as A, carries the bulk of the play as the crotchety old lady who marries a man who becomes wealthy and showers her with gifts. Her description of how her husband once presented her with a diamond bracelet is delightful. Ms. Hurd plays B, the matter-of-fact persona who stunningly bursts into anger in the most emotional moment of the evening when the son (a silent role played by Sammy Panzarino in his Austin theater debut) returns to pay his respects to his dying mother. As C, Ms. Parks is effective as the young bachelorette who listens and learns and tries to stand up for herself.
A comment on the set: Elegant and simple. The furnishings of bed, chairs, small tables with gauze draperies at the sides are enhanced by a triptych in the style of (or actually painted by) June Kellogg, who has a series of paintings under the rubric “Women Walking Tall.” Mr. Berkovsky is credited for the set and properties. The lighting design is uncredited but is also worthy of note.
Three Tall Women has its genesis in Albee’s early life. The “tall woman” is his adoptive mother of whom he has said, according to the program notes, “I did not like her very much.” His feelings are evident when he has the youthful, unmarried C, after hearing what A and B tell her about what she will do in future, angrily threaten the impossible: “I will not become you.” It is to the credit of City Theatre to bring this important play to Central Texas audiences as kind of an homage, in Mr. Berkovsky’s word, to Albee, who died last September at the age of 88.
Three Tall Women plays Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and a Sunday matinee at 3 p.m. through March 5. A “Free Night of Theatre” performance is scheduled for Wednesday, March 1, at 8 p.m. The theater is located at 3823 Airport Blvd., Austin.