It's the ultimate question, the one that preoccupies all active minds: Why death? Why the inevitable, final dissolution? And why the process -- nasty, smelly, embarrassing -- by which we lose ourselves, degenerating bit by bit into squalling infants, with none of the charm of infants or their ability to compel tenderness, and without the sweet infantile assurance that this condition of absolute helplessness will eventually be outgrown? In How We Die, Dr. Sherwin Nuland debunks the idea of the "good death" as something to be striven for or that can be attained by an act of will. Your last moments will be shaped by irresistible chemical and physical processes, he says, as organs break down and one vital function after another is interrupted. But Nuland also says that this is not a cause for unadulterated despair: It makes the way we choose to live our lives before the dying process sets in doubly important.
In Three Tall Women, Edward Albee tackles this cold, irreducible problem of death in a specific context. We spend the first act watching the mental and physical disintegration of a very old woman. She was probably never a likable character to begin with, but whatever she once was, she is now angry, paranoid, querulous and agitated. She rambles about the past. She's incontinent, spiteful and ungrateful toward those who tend to her. She's also a racist, although she barely understands her own racist comments or the revulsion they arouse in others. In short, this woman is hell to take care of, but thanks to her wealth, she is being taken care of nonetheless. Her caretaker, a 52-year-old woman, occasionally becomes angry with her charge, but on the whole she appears gentle and reasonable, if somewhat detached. There's a third woman in the room with the two of them, an unaccountably confrontational young assistant from a lawyer's office who wants to get the old lady's jumbled papers in order.
The old lady is attempting to sort through the stuff of her life. Sometimes her stories are meaningless; sometimes they seem cogent, but she trails off before reaching the point. The experience of watching Three Tall Women is uncomfortably like that of tending to a demented elder in real life. "He doesn't love me," the old woman says of her estranged son. "I don't know if I love him."
Germinal Stage has a reputation for not pandering to audiences, for proudly presenting difficult work, and Three Tall Women is among the most difficult pieces I've seen there. Not because of its intellectual knottiness, but because of the hard truths it presents and the withholding of all the palliatives with which these truths are usually softened. This is not to say that the play is boring. The dialogue is occasionally funny in an ironic way, and the interaction between the three women is fascinating. Sometimes the two younger women observe the older one with mutual revulsion; sometimes the old woman and the 52-year-old gang up on the youngest. As for this girl, it's hard to understand why she's as rude as she is, but it's interesting to watch her. At the end of the first act, the old woman suffers a stroke, and something odd happens among the three figures on stage.
Act two begins with two younger women standing by the still figure of the oldest on the bed. Is she dead or unconscious? Within a few minutes, we understand that the three women are now the same person. The 92-year-old rises, vigorous again and in full possession of her senses. The 26-year-old is confronted with herself at 52 and herself in old age. Naturally, she's horrified by the ugliness of her own final moments.
Now the play's theme expands. It's not just about death, but also about memory, understanding, the significance of a life. "They don't know me," says the young girl of the older women, and it's both true and not true: We know our younger selves intimately, but at the same time, we have forgotten so much of how it felt to be them. The older women watch, cold-eyed. They tell the youngest that the mother she loves will eventually become so monstrous and difficult that her death will be a relief. It's impossible for the girl to assimilate this information. Although the middle-aged woman knows many things the 26-year-old doesn't, she, too, is in the dark. "How did I change?" she asks the oldest. But the old woman has no answers. All she can describe is a kind of increasing detachment from herself. When she imagines being dead, she tells the others, "I wonder which has died -- me or the one I think about."
What about happiness, moments of joy, asks the youngest. "Won't it all be balanced out? Please?"
Does Albee give us even the thinnest thread of hope, some hint of poetry or transcendence as a talisman against the darkness? Well, there are hints. When the woman's son -- surprisingly -- arrives, it may be affection that draws him to his mother's side. But then again, it may not.
"Crabbed age and youth cannot live together," Shakespeare once said. "Youth is full of pleasure; age is full of care." In our culture, we try to pretend otherwise. We read books about celebrating middle age; we undergo plastic surgery; we cheer for oldsters who run marathons. But on some level, we all know the truth: Aging is hard and grim. We try to evade that truth. It won't be that miserable for me, we whisper to ourselves, like Albee's young girl. And if it does ever get that bad -- if I find myself demented or doddering -- I'll end it. As if every sad figure in every nursing home in the country hadn't once thought the same thing.
Fortunately, Ed Baierlein's expert direction and his four actors are up to the challenge of Albee's script. Patty Mintz Figel plays the old woman with complete conviction, making her so palsied and appalling that it's hard to imagine how the actress puts herself through the experience night after night. This is what acting should be: giving yourself fully, your own fears, strengths, vulnerabilities and eccentricities to a role. There's something very evocative about the way Cody Alexander, as the nurse, moves on the stage, and about the grave shadows around her mouth. She's gentle but no sucker, and she brings a needed softness to the play. I've now seen Jennifer Anne Forsyth, who plays the woman at 26, twice. Last year, she gave a strong performance as the schoolgirl in the Shadow Theatre Company's My Children, My Africa. Though her role in Three Tall Women is very different, she brings to it the same toughness and intelligence I admired before. Tad Baierlein is ambiguous, slightly insinuating and interesting as the son.
I saw Three Tall Women in London several years ago, with Maggie Smith in the lead. I was very impressed with the acting, but I don't remember being as moved as I was at Germinal. I think the play profits from the intimacy and immediacy of the Germinal setting, as well as the audience's physical closeness to the actors. This is a production that should be seen precisely because of the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings it arouses.
"Did you like it?" I heard one woman ask another as they left the theater. There was a pause. "I don't know," her friend admitted. "It was almost too much truth at once."
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