It’s a pity that Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women
is presented so rarely in the Queen City, for we’ve gotten very lucky both times. When Charlotte Rep premiered the play at Booth Playhouse in 1995, less than a year after I’d seen the original off-Broadway production of the Pulitzer Prize winner, director Steve Umberger plucked the star I had seen up in New York – Lucille Patton, who spelled Myra Carter for Wednesday matinees – and drew a better performance from her. The local actresses who surrounded Patton as women B and C, Mary Lucy Bivins and Paige Johnston, were at least as satisfying as their Big Apple counterparts.
Now at UpStage in NoDa, Innate Productions is overachieving with the same script, as Paula Baldwin stars as 92-year-old A, ably backed by Shawna Pledger as 52-year-old B and Rachel Bammel as 26-year-old C. Directed by Debora Stanton, the work sometimes feels cerebral and brittle – as it often did in New York – but the performances of Baldwin and Pledger quicken the pace and the pulse, adding a numinous layer of urgency. Farrell Paules is bolder in her costume and makeup designs than the piously drab New York production, and Sean Kimbro makes sure Albee’s gravity is maintained in his lighting design.
It would be fascinating to look over the playwright’s shoulder to watch how this work developed, for Acts 1 and 2 almost seem to be separate stabs at the same subject – A, Albee’s estranged foster mother, who was unsympathetic to his homosexuality. With a few minor adjustments, the order of the two acts could be flipped. Act 1 shows us the externals of the 92-year-old’s character as she interacts with an indulgent, empathetic caretaker (B) and an officious legal aide (C) who is nearly as irritated by the inaccuracies and inconsistencies of A’s anecdotes as she is by A’s string of ethnic and racial slurs.
As a lifelike bust of A slips discreetly under the bedcovers – sleeping, comatose, or dead – the same three women materialize after intermission. But now they are all the same tall woman at different stages of her life, and Albee explores how C evolved into A. There’s always a wicked edge to Albee, and it manifests itself here in the need for B to mediate between the idealistic C and the fully evolved, totally disgusted, and absolutely uninhibited A.
In the opening act, A is no more able to control her bodily functions than the hateful words that spew from her, so there’s a physical dimension that buttresses B’s pleas for indulgence and compassion. Here we find Pledger noticeably stressed and straining to be cheery, knowing deep down that there is no excuse for A’s intolerance and paranoia. Inside A’s skin in Act 2, a good deal of ethical and idealistic decay has already happened, so Pledger is a different kind of mediator as B: experienced, wised-up, cynical, and – joining with A against C – contemptuous of the 26-year-old’s innocence.
Pledger’s concept of B is the most satisfying that I’ve seen, and Baldwin’s work here ranks with the best we’ve had from her, placing meticulous emphasis on A’s age as she rules the stage. Albee didn’t have to be kind to a parent he hated and fled, didn’t have to concede that she was once likable, so the naïve and judgmental C is as irritating as anyone else we encounter. Bammel makes her stiffer and taller than the others, as inflexible in her ideals as C is in her settled fears and prejudices, horrified by her elders’ infallible sketches of her devolution. There isn’t as much dimension to her, but that’s part of the point, right?
Seeing Three Tall Women
on Sunday night, less than 24 hours after Clyde Edgerton’s Lunch at the Piccadilly
at Booth Playhouse, made for an often grim old folks’ weekend. Albee is no doubt the more sardonic of the two writers, but his view of aging becomes most horrific when perceived as a new vista opened up to young adults still radiant in their optimism. From this standpoint, C is a stand-in for us, and Bammel subtly convinces us that her generation is Albee’s target audience – or younger, purer versions of ourselves that we’ve conveniently buried.