It is fitting that Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize winning play, "Three Tall Women," should have premiered in Vienna, Austria, birthplace of psychoanalysis, where Sigmund Freud developed his theory on the id, the ego and superego, three parts of the human self.
Like Freud, Albee explores three elements of the human experience--youth, middle age and the less-than-golden years-as manifest in three women, "A" (Helenmary Ball), "B" (Cherie Weinert) and "C" (Kate Shoemaker).
The 2-act play takes place entirely in the bedroom of "A," an aristocratic 91-year-old (or is it 92?) with a failing memory and failed body. She is attended by "B," age 52, who exudes the resignation of a veteran caretaker, and "C," a 26-year-old from A's law firm, who flips sarcastic comments while rummaging through A's detritus of old bills and unsignEd Checks.
The first act serves as exposition, presenting us with the reality of what transpires when three women, in these three stages of life, come together in a confined space. "A" suffers with a broken bone that won't heal, a metaphor for her overall condition for which there is currently no cure-the fragility, infirmity, and senility of advanced old age. "A" relives the same memories over and over, the proverbial broken record; "B" has learned to shut this out, turning her attention to a book, while "C," not as experienced, or as sensitive to A's condition, feels impelled to challenge A, who stumbles from racist comments to crying jags to risqué stories that end, as all A's stories seem to do, with a terribly painful memory.
Despite this rather depressing tableau, Albee's play is heavily sprinkled with comic moments to provide relief. At the end of one of A's emotional outbursts, B soothes her by saying, "A good cry lets it all out" to which A replies, "What's a bad cry do?" Even the ever- sardonic "C" takes pause to ask herself, "Why can't I be nice?"
The first act closes with "A" suffering a stroke. A call is put out to A's son, referenced in the play as "Young Man" (Steven Olaguer) who arrives in the second act to sit at A's bedside in mute silence. The lighting changes, placing upstage in shadow, as "B" and "C" return to the room. They are joined by "A," all three assembling downstage, three chairs for three women who are really one-the character "A" at three points in her life, perhaps projections of A's mind now turned in on itself, a woman at life's beginning, middle and end.
Albee explores a variety of concepts in the second act, from how men and women view infidelity -- "A" notes that women "cheat" for a variety of reasons, ranging from boredom to revenge to "just being a whore," but that men cheat "because they're men" - to the theme which is at the core of the play: change.
"C," played with coquettish charm by Ms. Shoemaker, is at first exuberant with the thought of what her future holds. She relives with saucy smiles her own memories of being a department store "mannequin." Modeling fine clothes and jewelry, flirting with men, she develops tastes she will later indulge by marrying "the Penguin," a short, one-eyed but well-off man whose adulteries lead to agonizing pain relived by "B." Ms. Weinert presents a powerful monologue of a woman trying to come to terms with "the deal" she's struck with her husband, trading love for security. Sitting back and taking it all in is Ms. Ball's "A," no longer "that thing in the bed" that "C" so disdains, but tall, in command, exuding the serenity that comes when one is resolved to one's fate.
"Things change," A says with a sigh. "And so it goes," B says, more than once. But C presses on, determined to learn what morsels of happiness she might look forward to, leading the audience to face a philosophical question, when is the happiest time in one's life?
Is it "C," aglow with the charms of youth, the pretty glow of potential? Is it "B," when you've accrued some wisdom, and are afforded that "360 degree" view of when one can see both youth and age in one's self? Or is it "A," when one can embrace the satisfaction of a life complete?
My theater companion and I discussed this in the car on our way home and traded text messages the following morning as we continued to delve the many questions raised by the play-keeping audiences thinking, always the hallmark of excellent drama, and in this case, impeccably presented by the cast, director and crew at Fells Point Corner Theatre (FPCT).