Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Review of "Three Tall Women" at BCKSEET Productions, published in Edge Philadelphia

BCKSEET Productions kicks off their second season in residence at the Society Hill Playhouse with a compelling production of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Albee’s play—which attempts to come to terms with the memory of his mother—marks a strange choice for this young company, and a difficult choice for any company to attempt.

Act I poses all the problems. Imagine going to a home for seniors, not to see anyone you know, but to walk into the room of a wealthy, cantankerous 92-year-old matron (Jean Brooks, referred to in the script only as “A”), her left arm disintegrating from osteoporosis, her mind melting away under an equally progressive case of Alzheimer’s, to hear her ramble on about her life.

Competing for time in arguments and listening to the stories are two other women: A’s caretaker (Catherine Palfenier, only called “B”), and a young representative from A’s lawyer (Janice Rowland, as “C”). While certain plot-lines surface throughout this act—A believes everyone cheats her, C recoils in horror from the A’s physical decline which B tries to manage with equal parts callousness and compassion—ultimately the first half exists to offer a window into the inner life of the recalcitrant, slightly bigoted woman who once threw Albee out of her house, and with whom he never completely reconciled.

To his credit, Albee fills this seemingly bland scenario with enough intrigue, humor, and bitter and joyful anecdotes, so that director Oscar Dubon and this cast can plough through the first half. (Which is in many ways a placeholder for the meatier material of Act II, where A, B, and C each play Albee’s mother at various stages of her life, as the woman in the twilight of her year’s, at 52, and two year’s before marriage at 26, respectively.)

In Act II Albee offers a captivating scenario that many would like to experience, the opportunity to listen as our future selves give us advance notice of the painful reality to come. Here the play takes off, becoming a dynamic and poignant meditation on the very nature of human experience in a life where the only constant is change. Highly pessimistic (in the philosophical sense), Albee explores the notion that “a person’s character is their fate,” as C points at the future selves that now terrify her with their bitterness and shattered ideals and declares, “I will not become that,” long after the audience has seen the futility of this gesture.

I’ve seen productions of this play where the director seemed to relish in the vitriol, nastiness, and existential anguish, which if taken seriously, would result in “streets littered with adolescent corpses.” Thankfully, Dubon makes some choices that both add dimensions to this play and unburden the audience from the potential viciousness and despair laden into Albee’s script.

Where Albee’s script uses B’s telling her younger self tales of adultery and mid-life anguish in an attempt to implode C’s notion that “happiness is on the way,” Dubon lightens the presentation, having a much softer A than the woman we met in Act I, and by showing the source of B’s cynicism as having more to do with rage in her interaction with Albee’s onstage, though silent, character (Noah Mazaika). The overall feel of the production then capitalizes on the existential themes (when is the happiest time? Why do we struggle?), particularly as enhanced by Steve Heitz’s lighting in the final moments of the play.

All three women help Dubon maintain this softness, particularly Rowland, who gives a searching and very affecting performance that struggles to hold onto the hope of her ideals even while seeing their eventual betrayal. Palfenier’s intermittent callousness in both acts plays nicely against this, nailing the bitter humor in stories like her adulterous interlude with a stable boy on a pile of straw that “probably has shit on it,” while Brooks tames Albee’s mother with an almost sing-song reading of her lines in the second half.

In a sense, Brooks’ acting further cleaves the production in two, as there’s not enough of her temperamental Act I persona or her Act II gentility. But this is a minor loss compared to the only real detraction, which is that these three tall personalities don’t have enough room.

Christopher L. Butterfield’s design isn’t the problem, as the jagged lines of his set aptly harp on the fractured memories and timelines played out on stage. But the small space nonetheless smothers these actors, starving them of the necessary space—personal and theatrical—necessary for them to manifest the grandeur of each of the contradictory epochs in this woman’s life.

At an age where A can’t even remember which one of her husband’s eyes was glass, she remembers being tall. Ultimately this play is much more than Albee’s coming to terms with his mother, and this production very compellingly shows not just a woman who endured, but who fought her way through life with a confidence in the values of an era many are thankful no longer exists. The real question, “How do we not become our future selves, how do we not lose our ideals, our capacity for happiness?” goes unanswered, but I walked away with enough of the impact of Dubon’s production to still ask this question.

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