Review: THREE TALL WOMEN at The Stratford Festival Offers a Memorable and Introspective day at the Theatre

Martha Henry is Captivating in the Acclaimed Edward Albee Play

By: Sep. 02, 2021
Review: THREE TALL WOMEN at The Stratford Festival Offers a Memorable and Introspective day at the Theatre

After over a year and a half of wanting to once again have that experience of walking out of a theatre to the chatter of other patrons commenting on a play, it is ironic that the first time Stratford Festival audiences have the opportunity to do this, they do so in an almost stunned silence after watching a powerful and devastating production of Edward Albee's THREE TALL WOMEN. The small company is stellar in this existential exploration of living, dying, and everything in between. Memories of Martha Henry's performance will linger for days after the cast takes their final bow.

THREE TALL WOMEN is a play that Edward Albee wrote about his mother - a woman he was estranged from for most of his adult life. When the play begins, we meet three women, simply named A, B, and C (played by Martha Henry, Lucy Peacock, and Mamie Zwettler respectively). In the first act of the play, these women are all seemingly different people and in the second Act, they are all representations of Albee's mother at different stages in her life.

Act I opens with 'A' announcing that she is 91 while 'C' - someone from her lawyer's office who has come to see her about some unsigned paperwork - repeatedly tries to correct her by stating that her records show she is actually 92. A's support worker, 'B' tries to move them along from what she feels is a pointless debate. In these first few moments, we already see some key stereotypical elements of generational divides as C is in her twenties and B is in her fifties. This continues throughout the first act. C frequently corrects and clarifies things regardless of importance (a habit often attributed to members of the younger generation) and B tries to maintain the peace while her allegiances seem to shift between the other two women from one subject to the next. At one point, both A and B use bigoted language - the former to represent the anti-Semitic and racist thoughts that she actually has, and the latter allegedly to try to dismiss them as just words. In this instance, when C speaks up, it seems incredibly important that she does so, as this is about something far less trivial than a lady's age. C's protests are short-lived though, and seemingly successfully dismissed by B's statement that this is just the way A learned things. It is an uncomfortable moment, and it is not even clear if Albee's intent is to have C be the voice of reason or if he is portraying her outrage as another example of her character's youth. There is a powerful note on this scene written by actor E.B. Smith in the digital House Program. It reflects on the impact of this language - both on the groups it is targeting and on marginalized members of the audience watching this scene. Even though the characters in the play don't further examine the impact of this language, it does not mean that we shouldn't.

The entirety of Act II is made up of the 91 (or 92), 52, and 26 year old versions of the same woman gossiping with, debating, and enlightening one another about regrets, hopes and dreams, shifting perspectives, etc. They often disagree and challenge each other, and of course the only one who fully embraces that they are all the same person in the end, is the woman who has at some point been all of them. This is a fascinating exploration of a person and all three actresses do well to distinguish themselves in their unique identities whilst also capturing some similarities between them. Everyone has their moment to shine as they essentially present the audience with vignettes of how this character evolves into A - allowing us to fill in the blanks.

The nature of life and the fact that we are all dying is deeply explored in this play. As B points out, it is true for all of us that life is just a breath. It begins with an inhale and ends with an exhale. Each character has a different perspective on what is the best part of her life and although A understandably gets the last word, it is interesting that it is perhaps not the wisest - then again, what authority do I really have to say this as I am, after all, not yet the 'A' version of myself.

This play was part of the 2020 season that never was, and so Director Diana Leblanc, and the three leads have been living with this play since spring of 2020. For a play that explores perspectives and how they shift as life goes on, it is interesting to think about how this tumultuous year has affected their own visions for this play and these characters. Designer Francesca Callow must have really had her work cut out for her, as she began this project designing for an indoor stage at the Studio Theatre, then after the pandemic-induced pause, was told to plan was for this show to be outdoors under a canopy, only for it to be moved back to the Studio Theatre. I think it is fair to say that her process for designing this production is unlike any other. She mentions in the Festival's 'Showstarters' online interview that she ended up incorporating ideas from both designs she had been working on. The end result works very well. In the first Act, we are introduced to Henry's 'A' as she sits in her chair in the centre of her lavish home. In the second Act, we see a representation of A in a hospital bed above the stage while the stage below is now made to look more like a garden, perhaps on another plane of existence entirely given the supernatural element of these three women conversing with one another. The stage design in Act II highlights nature and has more of an ethereal feel. Considering this entire play explores the inevitability of the passage of time, and there is no better depiction of that than what is found the outside world surrounding us, it feels fitting that the audience be reminded of this through the use of nature.

Rounding out the cast is Andrew Iles as The Boy - the estranged son (Albee himself) who returns to his mother on her deathbed. Peacock delivers a heart shattering performance when faced with the knowledge that her son returns in any capacity and that A is not nearly as upset with him at 92 as she is in her present day. The anger toward her son and toward her future self is palpable. Zwettler's C is understandably overwhelmed throughout Act II. She is seeing a future for herself that she doesn't like, or at least doesn't understand and she is fighting against what appears to be inevitable. Zwettler brilliantly portrays this conflicting and simultaneous youthful optimism and existential dread. It is Martha Henry's performance as A that is impossible to forget though. Whether she is wailing in dementia-induced confusion and pain in Act I, or speaking of her final days with a knowing twinkle in her eye in Act II, she is utterly captivating.

This is a play in two Acts, with each Act being roughly an hour. In order to follow COVID protocols which do not allow for an intermission, these two Acts are essentially two separate performances with a 3 hour break in between. This works well for this play but must be emotionally grueling for the performers, particularly Henry. Their efforts are much appreciated though, as this production promises a memorable day at the theatre.

THREE TALL WOMEN continues at the Studio Theatre until October 9th

Photo Credit: V. Tony Hauser