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This is a superb production of a very honest play. Albee’s writing deals unflatteringly but compassionately with an ordinary human being, and with the extremely anxious-making questions we have to face in the plain light of the body’s mortality.
The three tall characters of the title are simply named ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’. The first act takes place in the home of ‘A’, a nonagenarian femme fatale, now breaking down physically. ‘B’ is her hired home help, a woman in her fifties; and ‘C’ is a representative of the old lady’s lawyers, come to insist on payment for the management of her estate and redeem all the invoices that have got lost in her ‘“I’ll-get-to-it” pile.’
‘A’ reflects on her past life, giving her audience a rambling but vivid rehearsal of her most cherished, remembered images. These are images of pleasure, vindictiveness, satisfaction and shame. But her bodily decay – her broken arm, her ‘sphincter and [her] cortex not in synch’ – is becoming matched by the decay of her mental faculties (“I can’t remember… I can’t remember what I can’t remember”) and she lapses by the end of the act into a stroke.
The second act moves us from a thoroughgoing naturalism – although one, as always with Albee, made meticulously musical – into an experimental conversation between ‘A’’s old self, her middle-aged self and her youthful self (yes, ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ become the same, tall woman). Into the midst of this enters the character of ‘The Boy’, her estranged son.
By the end of the second act, we have moved into a profound meditation on change, death and storytelling. It’s been a slow but very brilliant burn.
This very slowness seemed to anger some of the audience present. I was feeling pretty bored myself by the end of the first act. Or was part of what I was feeling as boredom more a feeling of tiredness, induced by a semi-conscious striving to distance myself from the situation of a dying old woman and the mortification it requires to look after a loved one in that state? Oh, I don’t know, and why should you care.
Or perhaps I should say that some of the chemistry was lacking on stage in the first half, Anna-Louise Plowman in particular, as the young lawyer, seeming to find subtleties neither within her underwritten character, nor between her and her excellent co-actors Diane Fletcher and Marjorie Yates.
But this out-of-tuneness was righted in the second half. Irina Brown’s direction is extremely tactful, and she allows the hemmed-in writing, the hemmed-in emotion of the first act to open up in the second. If the actors shied away a little, before the interval, from extending the range of their play within the situation (the funnies not funny enough, the poignancy a little too tepid), then they certainly let rip with an excellent text when the entertainment continues.
These three tall women move and talk like three ancient goddesses, each claiming to speak for the frail human body passing out of existence before us. Perhaps we might recognise that chorus within each of us, quarrelling amongst each other when we try to construct the story of our life.
Neil Jones © 2006
Originally published on R&V on 26-05-06
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