As an imperious, acerbic old woman lies dying, she is tended by two other women and visited by a young man. Albee’s frank dialogue about everything from incontinence to infidelity portrays aging without sentimentality. His scenes are charged with wit, pain, and laughter, and his observations tell us about forgiveness, reconciliation, and our own fates. But it is his probing portrait of the three women that reveals Albee’s genius. Separate characters on stage in the first act, yet actually the same “everywoman” at different ages in the second act, these “tall women” lay bare the truths of our lives – how we live, how we love, what we settle for, and how we die. Edward Albee has given theatergoers, critics, and students of drama reason to rejoice.
This play premiered 20 years ago in New York and has since won many accolades. It is widely interpreted to be based on the playwright’s relationship with his adoptive mother which was always difficult and subsequently broke down leading to many years estrangement. Although relatively simple to produce, it is a complex and difficult play to direct as there is little action, relying heavily on the three actresses, simply listed as A, B and C in the programme, as they unfold the life of A from 4 different perspectives.
The setting has been described as a “wealthy bedroom, French in feeling” and what we had here certainly gave a sense of affluence and grandeur. Maybe the drapes all around, including the doors, made it a little too abstract and “other worldly”, like we were in an unreal place, perhaps in “limbo”, or maybe this was deliberate? The big bed looked grand and domi- nated the room but was barely used – on such a small stage would it have been pos- sible to cheat the dimensions to give more usable stage, or to have the actors use the bed more? It was well lit by Barry Lee. I loved the costumes which immediately signified the period and age of the character while the colours and strands of pearls gave a sense of cohesion, that this was really three versions of the same woman at very different stages of her life.
Act One introduced us to A, a wealthy woman in her 90’s with mild Alzheimer’s, who, attended by her paid carer B, was being visited by C, a young lady from a law firm following up on paperwork that A has neglected. The Act ends with A suffering a stroke and Act Two opens with her in bed with an oxygen mask on, asleep. We are then introduced to the three women who represent her as her younger self, in her twenties, fifties and seventies, played by the three actresses we saw in Act One. This is a fascinating device and even though I was expecting it, it was still a surprise when A walked onstage while apparently still in bed!
The part of A is hugely demanding as the long first act focuses on her rambling reminiscences about her past life, broken only by frequent toilet breaks for which she has to be helped across the room. It is a complex and difficult role and Carol Monzeglio handled the myriad swings of temperament from lucid to confused and cantankerous with skill. Her distress was evident as she became confused, with flashes of the proud, autocratic woman she had been. I would have liked this part of her character to be developed further – she seemed almost childlike when remembering parts of her life, something I remember in my Grandad who suffered from the same disease, but perhaps it could have been tempered with a more acerbic cynicism when lucid? This part of her character is vital as it goes some way to explaining her poor relationship with her estranged son. In Act Two, when we see her again, 20 years younger, she was every inch the matriarch of the family, glamorous and composed and the difference from Act One was excellently defined from the outset. Albee has been quoted as saying “Very few people who met my adoptive mother in the last 20 years of her life could abide her, while many people who have seen my play find her fascinating. Heavens, what have I done?”
I thought that maybe Carol was just too nice – although there were flashes of the autocratic, imperious character, we could have had more. However, Carol has a lovely stage presence and as she held the final moments of the play, the audience was spellbound.
Jane Wing first appears as the laid back carer to A, used to the old lady and her ways, explaining them to C with a weary acceptance when she challenges the old lady’s inconsistent and sometimes nonsensical statements. Her accent was very good, and there was a lovely contrast of character in Act Two instantly conveying the society wife with vivacity and cynicism. She took great pleasure in warning her younger self of what is yet to come and seemed to relish telling the tales of her misdemeanours in the hay! This was a delightful and eminently watchable performance.
Annie Gallagher, as C, had perhaps a harder challenge as her two characters were perhaps more similar. First as the straight-laced professional woman, there to get the papers signed and perplexed by the old lady’s ramblings and then in Act Two as the 26 year old version of the lady, a self-proclaimed “good girl”, still quite uptight and quite unimpressed at meeting her older selves (although after what they told her perhaps that wasn’t so surprising!). Annie had good expression of voice but could have used her body more to convey her feelings as she could be quite static. I wondered if there was more to be had from her sense of edginess, impatient as she was for life to hurry up and happen.
The son, not mentioned in the programme, was dressed appropriately and served as a foil to the feelings conveyed by two of the three women – perhaps he could have been more of a source of curiosity for C as her future son?
The three women were obviously a close knit team, giving us a totally focussed performance. They worked really well together under the direction of Claudia McKelvey although the pace started to flag in the first half (it is also a little overly long). In the main this is due to the writing – apart from several trips to the toilet, on the small stage there was little else to do without seeming contrived. The very hot evening didn’t help – we were fanning ourselves with the complimentary programmes. Act Two however really came alive as the pace lifted and the story hit its stride. Movements flowed naturally and each of the women was given their own “moment”.
The comments I heard afterwards from the people around me seemed to divide the audience, some loved it while others weren’t so sure – as I mentioned before the heat may have been a factor, but in my opinion we were treated to a very good production of an interesting play produced with the high standards I have come to expect from CoPs, thank you for inviting me again.
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