Tall Tales

Edward Albee's Three Tall Women makes one fine play

Dream state number one: you're 92, have had a stroke, and travel back in time to converse with your former selves. Dream state number two: you're 26 and are visited by your future selves, who can tell you how your life is going to unfold. Dream quandary: suppose your younger and your older selves don't get along? Suppose, in fact, they're repulsed by each other? "I will never become you," shouts the younger self. "I was never you. I deny you," volleys back an older, aged self.

So it goes in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, currently being given its first American performance outside New York by the Alley Theatre. (Albee's relationship with the Alley is long-standing; his Everything in the Garden was the first play to be performed in the theater's Texas Avenue building. He's lived in Houston and served as the Alley's playwright-in-residence since 1990.) Directed by Lawrence Sacharow -- who also directed the New York production -- the 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning play is about the life and memories of a dyspeptic, ungenerous woman, now 92, who's very candidly modeled on the playwright's adoptive mother, Francis Cotter Albee. Although Albee had been out of favor with the critics and the public for almost two decades, when Three Tall Women premiered the New York press fell all over itself to proclaim, "He's back!"

This fiery and lyrical work takes place as the tall, old woman approaches death, the "final exhale." The "tall" theme comes out again and again as she describes her wild youthful attractiveness, and her marriage to a short ribald man, the "penguin," who had only one eye but pots of money. She says he liked tall women, as did his father, but he teased her that "you're so tall, you'll cost me a fortune. I can't buy you little things." In the first act, the old woman tells her story to her 52-year-old paid companion and a dapper, 26-year-old woman sent by her lawyer to look into her confused finances. The three women are left unnamed, identified in the program only as A, B and C (A being the oldest, B the next oldest and C the youngest). The act closes as the old woman has a stroke.

The second act moves into the old woman's interior world. Her stroke acts like a dramatic prism, splintering her psyche into three parts -- three tall women, young, middle-aged and old -- which are now played by A, B and C from Act One. Young C wears a cream chiffon frock from the 1920s, middle-aged B wears a maroon velvet cocktail dress from the 1950s and C wears a mannerly dress over her stately and frail old woman's body. The 26-year-old version is eager to learn what's to become of her, whom she'll marry, whether she has children. The two older selves let the younger woman in on what's in store, and take more than a little pleasure in puncturing her rosy, youthful hopes. Both B and C are dead sure that they'll never turn into the acerbic old lady. She, in turn, spurns their very existence.

The 52-year-old B is detachedly curious about her future, only becoming involved when her son enters to keep a mute and dispassionate vigil at the side of the inert body of his mother (played by a mannequin in bed wearing an oxygen mask). B is enraged, and orders her son out of her sight. She had reviled him for what the play hints was his homosexuality; they remained estranged for 20 years. (So it went with Albee and his mother. She disowned him when he was 18 for similar reasons; they didn't speak for more than 20 years, and she left him out of her will.)

The three tall actresses bob and weave about the stage, their meditative interchanges stylized and rhythmically beautiful, like music. Indeed, the playwright has said that, as a boy, he wanted to be a composer. With Albee's characteristic absence of plot, the play's dialogue is given the task of knitting a picture of the old woman's life: the loneliness, the isolation of the individual not only from those closest to her -- husband, silent son -- but from herself. Most especially from herself. And how like Albee is the play's bleakly optimistic ending, which asks: what is the happiest moment of life? The answer? The moment right in front of your face, be you young or old, but for dark and shifting reasons: because you're young and foolishly full of yourself; because there's been "enough shit gone through to have a sense of the shit ahead"; because it's finally all over and you get some release.

But despite the grace of Albee's dialogue and Sacharow's staging, it's hard to ignore Three Tall Women's frequent missteps into outdated and sophomoric philosophizing. The central character herself, the bourgeois old woman, seems an anachronism. What's new here to learn? News flash: women were both prized and despised as ornaments for their wealthy and powerful husbands? The insights into men and women are frustrating in their limitedness. "Men cheat because they're men," we're told, and that's that. The sexual anecdotes -- although built up to with great tittering -- fall flat.

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