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January 28, 2011

Court's character-driven Women is a play without plot

Over the last 20 years, plays that eschew traditional action-based plots in favor of internal conflict as the source of dramatic power have become more and more popular. Three Tall Women, now playing at Court Theatre, is one such production. It is writer Edward Albee’s sort-of theatrical elegy to his mother, Francis Cotter Albee, but it is to be admired that Edward Albee didn’t take the easy route of giving us three long monologues on the meaning of these different stages of life.

Act I gives us Francis Albee at 92 (the stupendous Lois Markle)—here called woman “A”—when her memory is starting to fail her. Accompanying her is a middle-aged nurse, who goes by woman “B” (Mary Beth Fisher), and a young representative of the old woman’s lawyers—woman “C” (Maura Kidwell)—who has come to inquire about unpaid bills. It is only in Act II that we see all the incarnations of Francis Albee together on stage, as the young lawyer becomes Francis at age 26; the nurse, the same woman at 52.

All three women occupy the stage at all times, making this is a play of biting dialogue, not gratuitous soliloquizing. The result is mixed: Albee obviously writes very fine dialogue and is extremely adept at personifying each woman with a characteristic, unmistakable voice of her own. We hear a character speak, and we know exactly what sort of person we are dealing with. The trouble is that Albee does not always seem to know what he is writing about. An obvious theme of the play is the arc of human life, as well as the different perspectives one gains at these three ages, but at times it seems Mr. Albee has not quite milked this for what it’s worth. It is as if there is always some relevant commentary on the human experience in the background that is not always brought to the fore as much as we would like.

The first half hour of the play, that time when keen dramaturges are leaning forward in their seats, is more or less filled with one comical instance after another of the 92-year-old woman’s faulty memory. And Mr. Albee certainly has a predilection to think that to unearth the inner truth about life is to unearth the truth about sex, an idea which is taken a little far in this play. Still, the 92-year-old woman “A” is a powerful character, whose painful relations are at times quite moving. Veteran actress Lois Markle’s performance alone is the best reason to see this play. In the first act, “I think I know, and then I don’t remember what I know,” a line said with brilliant passion by Markle, is truly affecting. Also powerful is the old woman’s constant paranoia that she is being robbed “right and left,” likening the loss of her faculties to an assumed loss of material wealth.

Fisher and Kidwell also assessed their characters extremely well in Act I. And yet the single flaw of this production is that neither of the two younger women makes the transition to becoming Francis Albee in Act II.

Fisher keeps all the gritty honesty and casualness of delivery of the hired nurse in Act I, and Kidwell is the same confident, yet apprehensive, young lawyer of 1990s. Neither have any hint of the air we would expect in a woman who was born during the reign of Queen Victoria and later became vice chairman of the Westchester Country Club. It is only after we hear a reference to woman “C” being tall that we even realize the transformation has even occurred.

Perhaps Albee is to blame for this flaw; I cannot say for sure. What I can say, however, is that if Albee took the pains to make the ideas of Three Tall Women build and cohere as wonderfully as these finely drawn characters—and a more formal plot probably would have helped in this regard—we would have seen a more sustained and engaging work of theater.

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