Review: THREE TALL WOMEN at the Stratford Festival

by Lynn on September 3, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Studio Theatre, Stratford Festival until Oct. 9.

Written by Edward Albee

Directed by Diana Leblanc

Designed by Francesca Callow

Lighting by Louise Guinand

Composer and sound by Keith Thomas

Cast: Martha Henry

Andrew Iles

Lucy Peacock

Mamie Zwettler

An exquisite production with a towering performance from Martha Henry.

NOTE: This production is a big deal! It’s the only play in the Stratford Festival that takes place inside the theatre, while the other plays in the season take place under canopies, outdoors. The other plays are cut to 90 minutes without intermissions. You do not edit or cut Edward Albee’s plays—he calls that censorship and he didn’t like it. Three Tall Women is produced intact in two parts. Act I will be performed in the afternoon and Act II will be performed the same day in the evening—so you have an intermission of about 3 hours. And the cast is spectacular: Martha Henry, Lucy Peacock, Mamie Zettler and in a silent part, Andrew Iles.

The Story.  It’s the examination of the life of a cantankerous 92-year-old woman who is known only as “A”.Act I takes place in “A’s” bedroom where she generally stays except for trips to the bathroom. She is taken care of by her paid companion/caregiver known as “B”.They are visited by a young woman from “A’s” lawyer’s office who has come to try and make sense of “A’s” finances.The young woman is known as “C.”

These two women give “A” an audience to rage at; tell her story to of her initially passionate marriage that then went cold; her resentment of her son whom she said she threw out of the house, perhaps because he was gay; we see her bigotry towards Jews, Italians, Blacks and probably many others nationalities; her language is toxic and incendiary. The play is also a portrait of the anger of the aged for getting old and infirm. Act I ends on a startling note.

Act II is just as startling when we now see the three women this time depicting “A” from three points in her life: when she is 26, 52 and the older “A” at 92 but not as infirm. The characters are still known as “A”, “B” and “C.” This time there is a silent character known as “The Boy” who is A’s estranged son—preppy, 23. The characters in Act I are about the same ages as the characters in Act II: 26, 52 and 92 although with different relationships.

In Act I “B” and “C” serve “A” and act as her audience or the people over whom she can be imperious. Her true personality comes out here; arrogant, proud, bigoted, racist, condescending, needy, with occasionally senile moments, and embarrassed, a fierce woman in a crumbling body. But there is humour, usually between “A” and “B”, like a married couple with a short hand, the one being cared for and the caregiver tease and josh each other. It’s as if they have a set of games of one upmanship going on to get them through, and one is quick to pick up on the clues of the game when the other starts it.  But there is also “B’s” compassion for “A” when “A’s” sensitive sphincter and bowel conspire to embarrass her before she can get to the bathroom.

With that background we see in Act II that the women interact more evenly since they are the same person at different times in their lives.  It’s fascinating seeing the youthful, spritely “C” objecting to both “B” and “A” saying she will never turn into them, and they, knowingly nod to each other, that she will.

Comment. Three Tall Women is ‘autobiographical’.  Albee has said that his mother was the inspiration for “A”, but he would also say that “A” is a creation of his imagination. It was first produced in Vienna, Austria in 1991. Albee said he could not write it when his mother was still alive. She died in 1989.

Albee was adopted by Reed and Florence Albee when he was 10 days old. They were very rich and not good parents. Albee went to various boarding schools and by his own admission received a terrific education. In one interview he said he only saw his parents about 6 weeks in the year. He was gay and his mother would not accept that so she either threw him out at 18 or he left at 18. In the play she says he left. Perhaps to admit she threw him out might be considered a weakness on her part. Mother and son were estranged for 20 years. Even though they reconciled, Albee has said that his mother left him ‘chump-change’ in her will.

Albee has not written a hatchet job of his mother in the play. He  has said Three Tall Women is not a revenge play and besides I think he’s too skilled for that easy way out. He has created a difficult, obstreperous thoughtless woman, who was brought up to seek out a rich husband. He has written a proud woman who was smitten by the man she married and they were happy. She was accomplished, smart and wily. She nursed him when he was sick and he got better.He still died before she did. And we see the ravages of time on old age and for all “A’s” toughness, we see she is a prisoner of her crumbling body. One has to have compassion for that difficult woman.

The Production. It’s astonishing. Director Diana Leblanc puts us right in that old world richness. The piece can be static—an old woman who finds it difficult to move without a walker and the other women tend to her. But Leblanc moves characters so subtly to shift focus, that the moving is natural and appropriate. She controls the delicate dance of “A” commanding attention, “B” being watchful and attentive and “C” impatient with it all. Leblanc has directed a beautifully modulate, compelling production.

 Keith Thomas’s composition of harp music establishes a sedate, elegant environment. For Act I designer Francesca Callow has created a beautifully appointed bedroom with ornate chairs around the set. “A’s”(Martha Henry)  comfy chair is up stage centre with other chairs around the space. The back wall looks like painted wall paper with elegant, beautiful trees. There are a few flower pots around the space.  

For Act II The back wall is now blurry with the outline of the trees less defined. And there is a lot of foliage, tall trees, as if the house is growing in on itself as “A” seems to give into the ravages of time.

In Act I “A” wears three strands of pearls over her elegant pale pink silk lounging suit and matching comfortable shows. She is beautifully put together even though she doesn’t go out. There is a brown wig on a wig ‘stand’ on a table to “A’s” right. A black padded walker with a seat is always at the ready. “B” (Lucy Peacock) is dressed conservatively. “C” (Mamie Zettler) is in a light brown pant suite and stylish sneakers. For Act II “A” now wears the brown wig from Act I and while is still the oldest of the three and still uses a walker—this time a pale gold simple frame—she seems livelier, more alert. “B” is still conservatively dressed and “C” is in a frilly party dress.  

The acting is superb. Andrew Iles as “The Boy” is stylish, attractive and preppy. As he sits by his mother’s bed in silent vigil he appears perhaps guilt-ridden, deep in thought.

Mamie Zettler as “C” in Act I is impatient, matter of fact and has no time for the petulant antics of “A”, and in Act II “C” is more flighty, impractical and we get the sense she will eventually grow into both “B” and “C” because a person changes completely every seven years.

As “B”, Lucy Peacock is non-plussed, composed, nerves of steel when dealing with the irascible “A” in Act I, and almost quietly impish and knowing when dealing with “C” and “A.”

Martha Henry plays “A”.  Anybody who wants to be an actor or wants to know what greatness on stage look like should see this towering performance.  In Act I “A” reacts with incredulity to something “C” says. Henry’s eye-brows raise, her head turns slowly to “C” and utters an elongated, “WHAAAAT? in disbelief.” And in that reaction you have incredulousness, condescension, humour and a complete reaction to level the smarmy character of “C”. At times there is a delicate flicker of a hand in the air, full of appropriate flourish and other times the physical business is spare and as effective. Martha Henry as “A” is devoid of sentimentality. She is not afraid to be hard, harsh, mean, cruel and even ugly in showing “A’s” behaviour.

But she also illuminates the sense of despair and being trapped in a body that no matter how dexterous “A” pushes her walker, she is a prisoner of her body.

My audience seemed to be blown away by the play, but it’s Martha Henry who left them breathless.  Three Tall Women is challenging and yet funny. It does not shy away from bigoted language because that’s the how the character of “A” portrays herself and those around her know it. The characters are vivid and the actors rise to the occasion. But towering above them all is Martha Henry. It was a privilege being in the room seeing that performance.    

Three Tall Women plays at the Stratford Festival until Oct. 9, 2021.

Running Time: two hours with a three hour intermission between both parts.

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1 Nancy McNee September 4, 2021 at 12:18 pm

Lucky to have seen this yesterday. As the saying goes “growing old ain’t for sissies”. Act One leaves the audience shell shocked. Act Two shines a light in the corners.

Totally agree that Martha Henry is perfect in this roll and this production. Lucy Peacock’s laugh was perfectly timed and the harsh reality of viewing her future by Mamie Zettler makes you wonder how you’d have reacted in her shoes.

Diana LeBlanc’s direction was proof that a difficult play is the perfect antidote to these strange times.

Well worth the effort to see. Go.