Three Tall Women

Edward Albee
Oxford Playhouse production
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring

Production photograph

Albee is best known for his 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? about the confrontational couple George and Martha, brought to world wide prominence by the 1966 film starring another combative couple, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Although nominated, the play failed to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize, but it caused another battle when the committee could not agree and two of the judges resigned.

Lesser known – probably because of difficulty in casting – this 1991 play gained Albee his third Pulitzer Prize, the others being A Delicate Balance in 1966, and Seascape - 1974.

Although autobiographical, the play really concerns the women in Albee’s life, and we have all three of them on stage in a large pastel coloured bedroom dominated by a huge bed, and with a stage raked enough to make these tall women seem even taller, each achieving prominence in turn, depending on director Irina Brown’s astute positioning.

Woman “C” is the young, efficient lawyer, here to sort out the affairs of Woman “A”, the rich, forgetful and cantankerous old lady, still strong-minded and outspoken, but being let down by her degenerating body and needing frequent and painful trips to the bathroom. Woman “B” is the mediator between the two – the carer who is old enough to wistfully remember her youth, but conscious that she too is heading towards old age and infirmity.

The first Act is almost a monologue from Marjorie Yates’ 92 year old lady, looking back on her life with both pleasure and regret but now resentful of her dependence on others and, having herself married for money, she has become bitter and suspicious that everyone is out to steal it, but her biggest disappoint is her adopted son – in real life Albee himself – who not only managed to get himself expelled from every respectable establishment but also turned out to be homosexual, caring only for “his boys” rather than his mother. The dialogue is savagely and satirically witty, but with laughter woven into the fabric, especially as the Guildford audience identified with many of the situations.

In the second act Woman “A” has suffered a stoke and lies comatose in the bed, but the three women are still with us – and now it is evident that they are one and the same person, at different stages of their life, and the action becomes more animated as they each recall memories arguing about the facts seen from differing viewpoints.

“C”, (Anna-Louise Plowman) with the idealistic assurance and confidence of youth and beauty refuses to believe that she will marry for money, still less that she will ever be old. “I will not become you – I deny you!”, while “B” (Diane Fletcher) muses “How did I change? What happened to me?”

The belatedly grieving son arrives too late at the bedside – a brief and silent part for recent graduate Sam Curtis – and a dramatic collapse of the bedroom wall into the darkness beyond heralds the longed for death.

“I don’t write reassuring plays,” says the author, and how true that is. In an animated discussion in the car park after the performance, while arguing about the accurate depiction of the characters, we at least all agreed that it was not exactly a play to “enjoy”, but was fascinating, gripping, challenging, and led to some strong and differing opinions, together with a rueful acceptance of the frailty of life and the inevitably of death. This is a production which stays in your mind long enough to forget where you parked the car – which I did!

Not light entertainment – but nevertheless highly recommended!

This review was first published in Theatreworld Internet Magazine.

Pete Wood reviewed this production in Oxford and Robert William in Cambridge

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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