The In-Person Experience: Stratford Festival’s Three Tall Women
Three Tall Women, Edward Albee’s spectacularly crafted dissection and complex exorcism of his youth flies forth with a vengeance this season at the Stratford Festival, almost capsizing the calm and peace that exists in this small picturesque town in Southwestern Ontario, Canada. Against all odds and the pandemic itself, this fantastical piece of theatrical writing finds its determined way to the stage, ricocheting the pain, anger, and hurt to the rafters inside (yes, I said inside) the small intimate Studio Theatre, all while balancing both humanity and humor on their heads like books at an all-girls finishing school. The energy in the theatre is electric particularly because all the other productions at the Festival are being staged (most beautifully) outside in majestic tents this season, following all the COVID governmental guidelines, while these three tall women, all epic and majestic in their own right, remind us of the power and the forceful magic that can be ignited inside the darkness of a theatre. Not only is this the first and only production staged inside one of the Stratford Festival‘s theatres since the pandemic shut it all down last March, 2020, Albee’s masterpiece also earmarks the first time since that very moment in time that I found myself sitting inside a theatre waiting with anticipation for a performance to begin. The intensity is overwhelming and powerful, creating a tangible sensation of loss and gain all at the same time with every breath taken, by me through a mask, naturally, and by those three ever so magnificent creatures up on that elegantly positioned stage.
Split more precisely than ever into two unique constructs, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that reinstated Albee unravels over the course of a day here in the town of Stratford. Because of COVID guidelines, this particular production of Three Tall Women has been programmed as two hour-long acts separated by a long three-hour dinner break (perfect for a lovely dinner and a quick shop on Ontario Street). At first I wondered if the director, the wonderful Diana Leblanc (Stratford’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night) had some tricks up her sleeve in regards to the deliberate separation of the two distinct layers, but it appears to be more about cleanliness for COVID than constructs of storytelling. In some ways it’s a shame, as I was secretly hoping that the set, designed sparsely by Francesca Callow, would be this magical deconstruction and alteration, finding an added layer of understanding between the first and the second act, but the construct remained firmly attached to the protocol of the play and the (seemingly) never ending pandemic guidelines.
Trapped in an elegantly crafted room while systematically and metaphorically flipping through the abstract messy pages of her anger-infused diary, two of these three tall women are seated casually around the centralized dynamic force of nature that is the third. That woman; elderly, rich, and very proud, enhabits, at least in the performance I witnessed (and I’m sure not by design), a wheelchair, but even in that state, she commands our attention. That central character and part is the ‘King Lear‘ for female actors of a certain age, and here at the Stratford Festival, there is no one more qualified and respected than the formidable Martha Henry (Stratford’s The Tempest; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) who wraps the role around her finger with an unforgettable ease and determination. Henry, as Woman A, dominates the arena that she finds herself trapped in, swinging and winding her way, on wheels no less, through her memories with ferocious desire of all sorts. Her power is unquestionable, even in her deteriorating state of being, and positioned around her are two other women; tall and equally as formidable, although in very different ways and means. One is a personal assistant to the grand dame, played by the equally respected Lucy Peacock (Stratford’s Private Lives), and the other is a young lawyer, precisely portrayed by the wonderful Mamie Zwettler (Stratford’s The Crucible). The three work wonders around the first act’s meanderings, giving responses and their opinions, both vocally and physically, that dig deep and speak volumes upon volumes about the life that was lived by this old brittle woman.
The play really only has its centralized eye on the older woman’s experience, giving Henry so much ammunition that when Peacock’s character, Woman B, slyly states, “You haven’t seen anything yet“, we all knowingly nod, happily and nervously waiting for more hell to be raised in Henry’s “losing of it“. The celebrated actor, who is in her 80s portraying a woman in her 90s, challenges us to find our way into liking this woman, especially in Act One. She dives in with full force in a subtle and conniving way, much different than when I last saw the play on Broadway with Glenda Jackson in the same part. The legendary Jackson, aided by the magnificent Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill, demanded respect without ever giving in to the idea of wanting to be liked. She was a firecracker that burnt the hand of those who came to close. Henry, on the other hand, is a bit more sneaky and conniving, finding humor and craftiness in her delivery that plays with our sense of her. It’s a thoroughly compelling notion, and although I missed the Jackson command, Henry’s diabolical nature hidden within works its magic on us, “I dare say” and I was pleased as punch to witness it.
In the first half, Henry holds our attention completely, solidly keeping the play moving forward through the intricate web of foggy memories that exist, somewhat blurred, inside of the elderly woman’s head. Peacock and Zwettler serve as an audience to one, but the two talented actors cleverly find their way inside, engaging and retreating with precision. The beautifully constructed resurrection drives forward through the interactions of and with the complex and compelling older woman, struggling around her well-appointed room, arguing and engaging with Peacock’s middle-aged caregiver while being observed by Zwettler’s young lawyer going over some papers. The older woman reflects on her life, rambling on with aggressive frustration and enjoyment, floating in a mixture of shame, pleasure, regret, satisfaction, and memory loss. Peacock’s facial expressions and body language as a response deserve a standing ovation unto itself, telling us layers that go far beyond what is said. She pulls us in to her side with her attempts to be of help and to scold the young lawyer into having more patience, all while struggling to find the patience within herself. She shrugs off disregard and runs when assistance is needed, while beckoning us to lean in as much as she does when the old woman reveals something new and exciting, like how she once sat naked with her pearls and in what manner she was gifted one of her prized diamond bracelets. Within a telling gravelly voice, Peacock gives Henry chase, responding and conjoling with an artful poise that illuminates the whole. Zwettler, confined at least in the first half of the play to the shortest side of that triangle, finds her moments to dig in, establishing herself well for what is to come later for this actor in the second part. That is when her talent will be given the opportunity and the space to shine just as bright as the others.
Henry’s A asks to be helped into bed, and in the middle of a sentence things start to warp into something quite different, and in the aftermath, we see just how powerful Henry, the actress, truly is. Through the second act window, this old woman, divided into three, delivers the joy and optimism of her childhood and her early marriage, before being forced to face up to the painful events that caused her anger and regret, namely her husband’s affairs and death, and the estrangement of her gay son. It is here, within the second part of the play when the complex and compelling construct truly is given the full opportunity to shine out from the darkness with fearless rage, optimism, and the stench of death close by. The three embodied layers are almost Shakespearian in their tragedy, finding energy and excitement inside their disbelief and rage. Zwettler finally is given the chance to unpack her true connectivity while swirling around in a beautifully designed dress. She, and that dress, radiate all that lives and breathes inside a privileged 26-year-old woman who sees only good things coming towards her from all angles.
But once again, it is Henry and Peacock who you can barely take your eyes off. They both unleash something superb, ratcheting around the dramatic core, while giving us dimensions of self that are both epic and very telling of the woman they both once were, particularly when Peacock unlocks all the homophobic hatred she has stored up and throws it with force at her one and only son who sits silently by grieving. The unraveling is wickedly intense, played out by all three with a level of interactive acknowledgement that is so finely tuned that the strings that hold these ladies together is as strong as wire, and as tight as their pain. The play and the production instinctively connects the internal emotional sharpness to Albee’s troubling upbringing when he was raised by conservative New England adoptive parents who disapproved of him being gay. Like the young man and son in the play, portrayed stoically here by the silent Andrew Iles, Albee left that toxic home at the young age of eighteen for more accepting pastures. But the writing of this play wasn’t as cathartic as Albee thought it would be, admitted once to The Economist that “I didn’t end up any more fond of the woman after I finished it than when I started.”
This finely packaged Three Tall Women is a ferociously dissected journey, played out before us by three dynamic actors at their best. Haphazardly designed on a stage that needed a bit more personality by Stratford’s Callow (who also designed the costumes), with simple straightforward lighting by Louise Guinand, and an elegant sound design by composer Keith Thomas, the production digs into areas both historically psychological and emotional, as the three struggle to comprehend each other’s motives and decisions. Aging and growing older, in the more abstract, is on display here, as is the always approaching face of death. One character states with confidence that all children should be made “aware they’re dying from the moment they’re born.” And one can’t help but feel the weight of that idea as we watch Henry retreat into arrogant complacency and fearful disorientation. From any vantage point, ours or theirs, that heavy abstract sits uncomfortably on all that view her, especially as we begin to see this woman through the three different shades of youthful arrogance, middle-aged disregard, and mature complacency, with the enormity of the struggle against encroaching senility hovering overhead in the horizon. That stance doesn’t change too much as we go from the first Act into the second, regardless of the restructuring. It’s a compelling piece of theory wrapped in sharp and very dark humor. It’s not the prettiest of pictures, but it is a powerful lesson, one that sinks in and plays out in our heads endlessly. “And so it goes.” one might say, with the misty clarity of uncertainty as we walk out of the theatre at the end of this magnificent full day at the Stratford Festival.