When a man can manipulate three smart women into hanging onto his every move, even though he treats them all like dirt, he must be something special. But one of the most intriguing aspects of Edna O'Brien's saucy little melodrama Triptych is that we never get to meet the cad at the center of all the tears and consternation that keep this tight script rushing forward. And that hardly matters. The three actresses stalking the stage at the Midtown Art Center, where Mildred's Umbrella is staging this Houston premiere, take such command of this story, we don't need to meet the fellow. We get quite enough of him just listening to the angry women he's cuckolded carry on about him.
Rising up out of the ashes of her husband's endless affairs is Pauline (Michelle Edwards), a big lioness of a wife whose psychic claws remain firmly hooked into her mate's flesh no matter how far he wanders into the jungle of amour. Pauline knows how to play a dangerous game of cat and mouse with her husband's lovers. In fact, her fur is already raised when the stage lights first come up. There she is, ready to meet the object of her husband's new affections: a pretty young actress who is backstage in her dressing room, primping. Wearing a pair of dangerous red heels, Pauline slips backstage and offers the flummoxed Clarissa (Patricia Duran) a sunflower, saying simply that they are so "sturdy." Clarissa has no idea that Pauline is her lover's wife. And Pauline doesn't let on; she simply gives Clarissa the once-over and offers the flower, leaving Clarissa utterly confused. She knows something terribly odd has just happened, but she's not sure what. There's a deliciously vague danger in this scene that sets the pace for an evening full of events that become more and more emotionally wounding as the night grows darker.
Clarissa starts off her affair as a strong and much-liked actress. But as she falls more deeply into love, her career begins to totter. She can't seem to concentrate once she gets out on stage. And one terrible night, Pauline comes into the theater and stands in the aisle to heckle Clarissa, calling her a whore. Though Clarissa never intended to fall in love -- she knows the man is married -- she ends up burning up in a fire of feelings that leave her scalded to the bone.
The third victim of this man's love is Brandy (Christie Guidry), his daughter. The lonely schoolgirl in plaid skirts and pigtails longs for her father's affection with an almost incestuous passion. As her father spends more and more time away from home with his new lover, Brandy becomes more and more desperate to find love anywhere she can. Boys, drugs and bad behavior are what little girls are made of in this story.
Told in a series of overlapping monologues, with some scenes between the women stirred in for interest, the play walks a line between drama and short story -- which makes sense, as O'Brien is one of Ireland's most celebrated fiction writers. Known for her novels about women and love, the writer has seen her raciest work banned in her own country. While this story certainly has sordid moments, what's most striking is the unrelenting way it kicks at the heart as it shows us women at their worst. It's also unflinchingly truthful, and the emotionally generous cast, under Jennifer Decker's direction, is willing to give this story all the desire and rage it needs, no matter how humiliating.
Edwards's Pauline carries a heart so misshapen by bruising love, she'd sacrifice her own daughter if she thought it would bring her husband home. And Duran's Clarissa wears the disappointment of her broken heart like a crown of thorns. As she winds her way down into the depths of her passion, she sacrifices more and more of her own identity. Guidry's Brandy is the craziest of all in love; she practically goes up in the flames of her manic adolescent quest for affection and love once her father disappears.
This is a difficult story to watch, but it's also a powerful cautionary tale about women who love too much in a world that offers just crumbs of affection and tiny scraps of solace.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events