A Tall Order

Michael Brosilow, Courtesy of Court Theatre

Few could interpret the nuances of Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Three Tall Women” with as much fluidity as director Charles Newell does in Court Theatre’s most recent production. A play which charts the life of an old woman from three different perspectives–the woman’s own, first at the end of her life, next in her middle age, and finally in her youth–“Three Tall Women” forces a director to maintain both synchronicity and contrast. Indeed, the very names of the characters in the play–A, B and C–emphasize this difficulty. The differences between the women are seemingly trivial, but nonetheless important: although they must have a single psychology, this psychology must have changed under the influence of the formative experiences it has endured. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the Jefferson Award—winning Newell not only rises to this challenge, but mops his bathroom floor with it.

An old hand at both Albee and Court Theatre, Newell was such a success in 2004 after his production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” that Terry Teachout of The Wall Street Journal said it was “the finest production [of the play he had] seen to date.” What makes this more difficult to stage than “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is the increased intimacy of the characters, whose lines dance off each other in a whirling spectacle of witticism and rebuttal. Negotiating the accelerations and decelerations of the play’s speeding dialogue is no small feat, one that is accomplished thanks to the gripping performances of Lois Markle, Mary Beth Fisher, and Maura Kidwell. During the moments when Markle cries, convulsing in tears of helplessness, an audience cannot help but fall deathly still, not a splash of sound in the theater as it waits desperately for the torturous moments to end.

Court Theatre, renowned for reinventing old favorites in avant-garde ways, was surprisingly conventional in its approach for this production–actors delivered the lines as written from within a set constructed with beautifully traditional attention to detail. Green velvet and heavy wood adorned the stage, lending the superficial mood of opulent wealth that is so cleverly undermined. But the conventionality worked well for a play that is dangerously easy to stylize into absurdity. Subtlety is Newell’s key–and it fits Albee’s lock.

The transience of these hopeless moments when the audience sees, with naked clarity, what it might mean to grow old and forget what has happened, is part of Albee’s cruel magic. Humor follows fast on the heels of painful revelation–humor that only anticipates more pain. In fact, revelation is central to “Three Tall Women,” which is the most autobiographical of Albee’s works–“an exorcism,” as he called it. He once said about this play that he “wanted to […] write as objective a play as [he] could about a fictional character who resembled in every way, in every event, someone I had known very, very well.” Thus he wrote the story of his mother, the six foot tall Frances Albee from whose house he, like the son in “Three Tall Women,” fled. Frances lived what seemed to be a charming life, trotting around her estates on show horses, but Edward saw a different side of her–the WASPy bigot who could not forgive him for his homosexuality. He ran away from home and remained out of contact for seventeen years, around the length of time the boy runs away from his mother in the play. Despite this, “Three Tall Women” seems utterly condemning of the boy’s decision to run, largely as a consequence of the fact that the play is written from the mother’s perspective(s). So it seems surprising to learn that Albee said he “didn’t end up any more fond of the woman after [he] finished [the play] than when [he] started it.” The enigmatic core of the play is further encrypted by the playwright who lived it.

Court Theatre. 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Through February 13. Wednesday-Thursday, Sunday 7:30pm; Friday-Saturday 8pm. (773)753-4472. courttheatre.org