Seattle Rep stages Albee's Pulitzer-winning Three Tall Women
 

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posted Friday, November 5, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 45

Seattle Rep stages Albee's Pulitzer-winning Three Tall Women
by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN Contributing Writer

Three Tall Women
Seattle Repertory
Theatre
Through
November 28


The Seattle Repertory Theatre continues its 2010-'11 season with its second family drama, Edward Albee's 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning Three Tall Women. The season-opening work, the Tony Award winning God of Carnage, set the tone for the fall season with its comedy/drama of two families who meet to discuss a recent altercation between their two young sons. Three Tall Women scans the lifetime of 'A,' openly based on Albee's hostile memories of his adopted mother. It's clearly the stronger play and makes a welcome return to the Emerald City's theater scene. A strong production at Intiman in the early 1990s is fondly remembered by longtime local theater fans.

Opening night of the Rep's production was seriously marred by memory lapses from Megan Cole, the main character in Albee's family saga. Cole, once popularly known as 'The Queen of Intiman' from her early work there - especially her mesmerizing performances in Electra and Medea - returned to centerstage at the Rep in a somewhat diminished capacity. Playing a 92-year-old woman with approaching senility, Cole went up in her lines about 20 minutes into the demanding work. After a long series of repeating prompting, she sailed through several scenes, but then the memory lapses returned. After that, it was clear sailing through the end of Act One. Alas, the damage to the overall production was already done. To her credit, a near flawless Act Two - the play's most interesting half - carried the evening and erased most of the awkwardness of the stumbles in Act One. To her credit, Cole accepted full responsibility for the problems in a candid discussion at the opening night party.

'I just couldn't get the lines out,' she smiled. 'The words were just not there. That's my project for the next few days.' Even with the faltering memorization, Cole was stunning in her strong characterization. (Full disclosure time: Cole is a great theatrical friend of this reviewer and, to this mind, can clearly do no wrong.) An educated guess would be that the show is letter-perfect by now, but early audiences - previews and opening shows - clearly missed out on some of the play's power.

Act One finds A in her stylish bedroom with two other 'tall women' present. B is a live-in caretaker/companion. C is a very young 'tall woman,' a young associate of A's lifelong lawyer. B, the resourceful Suzanne Bouchard, a local favorite, is the wisecracking observer. A is 92 years old and failing. And demanding - she admits to being 91 but is certain that she is not 92. C is bothered by the unnecessary vanity of taking one year off A's actual age. A rages, accuses the young attorney of stealing her money, obviously trusts no one, and has nothing good to say about her adult son who left home right after high school and returned to her life only recently. (The son appears mid-way through Act Two and has no lines to speak - he simply sits by his infirm mother. Nick Garrison plays the silent son.)

The family rift, it turns out, centered on the son and his boys. She was personally offended decades ago when her Gay son came out to her and her husband. (All of this parallels Albee's own experience with his adopted parents - the play omits the adopted status but the lines resonate with such pain that his homosexuality adds an extra dimension for GLBT theater fans.) Her Gay son did not return home when his father died (as Albee did not) but he has recently started making short monthly trips to his aging mother. A is suspicious. They never have talked again about his lifestyle, she tells the companion and legal rep.

Act One ends with a medical crisis. At the start of Act Two, Albee ups the theatricality of the play. A is in her bed center stage, obviously near death. C is, strangely at first, in a 1920s flapper outfit. B is in a mid-century stylish cocktail dress. It quickly becomes apparent that these two are now vestiges of A at earlier time of her life - C and B are the 26-year-old and 52-year-old versions, respectively. The two banter about their life at each point. B has knowledge of what happens to C, but C has no knowledge of her life after 26. Bouchard, as B, has the best lines - 'It's all downhill after 16,' and turning 50 'Opens up new vistas of decline.' Alexandra Tavares, in her Rep debut as C, more than holds her own in these brittle exchanges.

Well into Act Two, Albee pulls one of the most memorable theatrical coups in recent drama. A bounds on stage - Cole, a vibrant older woman, well-dressed and beautifully coifed (a remarkable Barbara Bush-look alike, only thinner) now represents the woman late in life. It turns out that the very realistic bedridden A is the work of the talented prop department. The three ages of the same woman are cleverly linked by costume designer Melanie Taylor Burgess who unites the three by their pearl jewelry. In Act One, A has revealed her love of 'pearls and diamonds.'

The three discuss their shared life. One thing that all three women agree on is the impossibility of oral sex. In Act One, A has a breathtaking monologue about her husband entering her dressing room as she sat nude in front of her makeup mirror. He, too, is nude (A's offhanded 'We were nude a lot then.' is one of the show's biggest laugh lines). He has wrapped a stylish art deco diamond bracelet around his erection (his 'peepee,' as she very properly calls it) and hovers over her shoulder as she sits. 'Take it, I thought you might like it,' he suggested. Knowing 'what he wanted,' she 'just couldn't,' and the scene ends in a marital disaster. In Act Two, all three agree that 'that' is one thing they could never do.

The son enters to sit next to the bed. He never speaks, but the women continue their discussion of him and of his life, of her lengthy marriage, of his recent return to his mother's life. Allison Narver, the sensitive director, led the cast in a visualization of Act Two during rehearsals, Cole said at the opening night party. 'We decided that each of the women is like a Plexiglass box stacked on top of each other, able to see and acknowledge each other.' It was a striking metaphor for Act Two, and it certainly makes this production sizzle.

The play ends, as it must. A life has been celebrated, a life has been examined. The show is theatrically stunning and the message - uncomfortable for some in the opening night audience - is well-made.

Three Tall Women continues at the Seattle Rep through November 28. Since the Rep is staging the high-profile work in the intimate Leo K. Theatre, the run is longer than usual and overlaps the Rep's upcoming mainstage production, Dancing At Lughnasa. Ticket information on all Rep productions is available at (206) 443-2224. Various discounts are available - be sure to ask.



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