Dealing with the death of a mother is a wrenching experience for children--to say nothing of Mum herself. And that's where playwright Edward Albee hooks you in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Three Tall Women: It's hard not to reflect on your own family as you spiral through the dark corridors of this play, now in an intense regional premiere at the Denver Center Theatre Company.
However, that sort of personal reflection is needed to help save the play from its indulgence in angst. Albee's is a grim vision of age and of a meaningless life lived badly. But while he may be exorcising the ghosts of his own experience, that experience seems awfully narrow. For Albee's protagonist, death is a welcome release. And though the DCTC's fully realized production is graced by excellent performances and director Anthony Powell's usual brilliant handling of difficult material, it's no walk in the park. Be prepared to do mental battle with the ideas.
As the play opens, an elderly lady (Woman A) is telling her middle-aged nurse (Woman B) and her young lawyer (Woman C) about her life. She is losing the ability to concentrate, she is periodically incontinent and she weeps a lot. Rich though she is, her history is largely pathetic, her own actions unadmirable, and her relationships with her long-dead mother, sister and husband marred by base emotions and a failure to love. She resents her only son because he doesn't love her and seldom visits her (no surprise there), but she longs for him nonetheless.
The young lawyer is appalled by the old woman's racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia, indifferent to her suffering and annoyed by her increasing dementia. The nurse is more understanding, nurturing her charge with good humor and a patience that's too often tried by the old woman's malice. After the old lady has a stroke and lies dying, Albee introduces a startling device. A very lifelike dummy lies in bed as two of the three actresses switch personas, and all three begin playing the same person. We realize we're seeing the woman at three distinct stages in her life. Her son comes to sit with her (the talented Erik Tieze has no lines but a great deal of presence) and gives the women plenty to talk about, for the central relationship in her life was the one with her son.
The embittered middle-aged woman taunts the callous young one about what she will become, while the younger woman abhors the old one--that won't happen to her; she could never become that "thing" in the bed. And the old woman mocks them both--her very presence reminds them of what they'll become. As the three fight, they paint the character's portrait in full--how she became the woman of 52 from the promising sweet thing of 26, and how the lively realist of 52 became the devilish old shrew of 91.
Jane Welch is magnificent as the horrid old lady, creating a genuine mean-spiritedness made all the more grating by a layer of vulnerability just below the surface. Annette Helde gives the middle-aged woman a cockiness balanced with a touch of actual compassion. And the most sympathetic of the three, Jennifer Schelter's innocent young woman, carries herself with a cool superiority that renders her wonderous naivete all the more genuine.
But as excellent as the language and theatercraft may be in Albee's play, one question remains: What's the point? Is this a cautionary tale, or only a portrait of an unpleasant old crone? Throughout the evening, each of the women makes pronouncements about life: Men can't help being unfaithful just because they're men; bitter resentment is inevitable; no matter what promise we hold in youth, the end is always hideous. Of course, all of these assertions are extremely questionable. However, a life lived without love or virtue is admittedly a hideous thing to behold--and for such a person, oblivion may indeed seem like a happy solution.
Albee, an actor and director himself, is known for laying down strict stage directions that make it difficult to produce his works. And Powell, one of the city's most gifted directors, has brought out everything this play has to offer. "All of the people in the play are grappling with the big stuff--age speaking back to youth, life and death, why we are here," says the director in a recent interview. "Does it all add up to something?" For Powell, it does. The play, he says, is a "celebration of a life lived--flawed and fallible though it is. By the end of the play, she is dead and she attains a kind of nobility. We have to give her credit, because getting through life is not easy. We should all get a gold watch."
It's an interesting point--and one that says as much about the director's view of humanity as it does about Albee's. Powell sees forgiveness in the play--the old lady forgives herself and lets go. All during rehearsal, he says, the cast members kept talking about their own families, how much guilt there is at the death of a family member and, more important, that death does not end relationships.
The effect of Albee's play on the audience is indeed powerful--during one recent performance, older people squirmed in their seats, middle-aged people looked stricken, and some younger people seemed bewildered or just bummed out. But though the play does hit home, it ultimately misses the mark.
As he so often does, the pessimistic Albee fails to consider the redemptive power of love acting on human consciousness or even the deep human impulse toward goodness. His plays are always honest--but while the viewer may glimpse the greater possibilities of living, Albee himself never seems to. In his vision, life is nasty, brutish and short. And forgiving oneself is a pale response to so much misery.
Three Tall Women, through March 29 at the Ricketson Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.
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