An appreciation of Three Tall Women at the Stratford Festival

by Lynn on October 14, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

I often see productions with people I admire more than once.  This production of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women certainly fit that bill. In the play we see the three women at three stages in their lives, playing A, B and C. 

It was directed by Diana Leblanc whose work I admire for its sensitivity and depth.  It had Lucy Peacock in the cast  whose work I’ve loved over the years, playing B with subtle understatement and wonderful humour. (Mamie Zettler played C and Andrew Iles played “The Boy”—both of whom I want to see act again).

But at the centre of this production was Martha Henry playing A. I knew this would be something special. She is a towering presence in the theatre in this country and certainly at the Stratford Festival. Every performance of hers is an education in acting, theatre and being human.

I had my review tickets for the beginning of the run, but knew that I wanted to see it at the end as well. The run was sold out. I put myself on various wait-lists for several performances and got lucky when I got a ticket for the very last one. As thrilling as the early performance was, this final one was more so: gut-wrenching, luminous, dangerous and full of spirit and guts, all because of the woman at the centre of it.

One is aware of the passing of time when one sees a veteran like Martha Henry. She played Prospero in The Tempest three years ago when she was 80. She is now 83 and she just finished this run of Three Tall Women. I fluctuate thinking she can go on forever playing whatever part she wants, to wondering, is this the last time I’ll see Martha Henry on a stage.So I went again, for her last performance in this play.

Was it much different than when I first saw the show? It certainly was deeper, richer. A is a cantankerous, obstreperous, pampered, paranoid, racist woman.  She holds racist beliefs about many ethnicities and is bold about expressing her racism in offensive language.  She says that her son has scolded her for that language but she seems perplexed by that.  So in that performance we see that arrogance of class against minorities as if that’s what she knew and didn’t know any better. But her son was from that class and presumably of the world and he learned that racism was reprehensible and told his mother directly—where no one else did. Such quiet scenes just leapt out.

Watching Martha Henry as A was watching a master manipulator, as A brow-beat the underlings there—the two women in her employ. It was a masterclass in watching how language can be used to play tricks, games and tell jokes when you least expect it. And a masterclass of how a great actress uses that language in different ways. You expect a word to be said a certain way, and she changes it up for the same or better effect.

When I first reviewed this production, Martha Henry? The character? used a walker to maneuver the stage. And she was dexterous in shifting it around.  In this last performance she was in a wheelchair. Not a motorized one but one in which she pushed the wheels and maneuvered the room.

In one scene, A’s son has come to visit and he’s lying on a divan with his knees folded along it. Martha Henry drives that wheelchair towards that divan and rams it on purpose to get the silent son to be startled and move his legs. Then she backs up and rams it again. She is showing him her contempt. It was frightening, combative and true for the character.

At the bow, the audience was rapturous with applause and Martha Henry glowed with triumph. Antoni Cimolino, the artistic director of Stratford was there, and presented Martha Henry with a huge bouquet of yellow roses and went down on one knee, like a courtier, to give her the bouquet. She beamed at that.  Then she waved to the audience as she was wheeled off.

You wonder, is that a wave of good-bye? An evening full of such brilliance and emotion. I was so grateful I was there.

Here is the link to my review of Three Tall Women:

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.