Three Tall Women

Edward Albee
Stratford Festival
Stratford Festival Theatre

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Martha Henry Credit: V Tony Hauser
Mamie Zwettler, Martha Henry and Lucy Peacock Credit: V Tony Hauser
Mamie Zwettler, Martha Henry, Andrew Iles and Lucy Peacock Credit: V Tony Hauser

Having achieved worldwide popularity during the worst of the pandemic, Stratford Festival returned to the live stage last summer but continues to offer selected productions online via its Stratfest@Home viewing platform, which is available worldwide.

Three Tall Women, directed for the stage by Diana Leblanc and adapted for the screen by Barry Avrich, sadly not only showcases the talents of three superb actors but is simultaneously broadcast as a eulogy to Martha Henry, a regular Stratford star who passed away days after the show closed.

As the theatre’s artistic director Antoni Cimolino so poignantly and pertinently observes, “Martha’s final transcendent performance was given in the face of her own death. It is a potent distillation of her strength, fierce intelligence and boundless talent. Sadly we shall not look upon her like again.”

Edward Albee is often regarded as a difficult playwright and he rarely presents classical, well-made plays, preferring to experiment in his efforts to examine and explain the human condition, in this case via an exploration that is reputed to be closely drawn from the writer’s relationship with his mother.

The first act of a 2¼-hour drama, which takes place in the affluent living room of 92-year-old A, is unusually for this writer a model of realism.

It features Miss Henry’s ailing, wheelchair-bound A in her dotage, attended by Lucy Peacock as a middle-aged live-in carer / friend and Mamie Zwettle portraying a pernickety young lawyer, visiting to try and sort out the wealthy old lady’s financial affairs.

Instead, for the most part the trio happily laugh and bicker for an hour as the powerful but vulnerable and sometimes irascible veteran regresses and reminisces as she attempts to recall the presence but, while finding the past much easier, entertaining and shocking with her outdated bigotry but still engendering affection along the way.

After what would have been an interval on stage, the trio returns supplemented by a silent visit from the old lady’s very beautiful young son. Now, we get the chance to view the same material from tripartite perspectives, entering the mind of the now comatose central figure.

Cleverly, Albee transforms the actresses into the same character at 26, 52 and somewhere in her 80s.

Greatly to the discomfort of the still single young A, her older selves foretell her life to come, featuring many pleasures but also much pain, majestically mixing pathos with occasional bursts of sardonic humour.

In this way, family secrets are revealed and garner reactions that are frequently unexpected but always seem to ring true.

The production must have been very powerful on stage but may be even better in the film version since viewers are able to study the faces of the three women in close-up.

Three Tall Women is always going to be a star vehicle and impeccably shows off the talents of each actress at different points. It also allows them to interact like the oldest of friends, or even the same person.

This is a production that should not be missed on its own merits but also acts as the perfect tribute to the late Martha Henry.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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