Pain, sorrow and other rewards of womanhood


(c) Michael Brosilow

From left, Mary Beth Fisher, Lois Markle and Maura Kidwell are the "Three Tall Women" in Edward Albee's play at the Court Theatre.

Review: “Three Tall Women,” by Edward Albee
Court Theatre, Chicago

She is Everywoman. Well, perhaps not just any woman. She’s quite wealthy. But here’s the leveler. She’s 91 years old, maybe 92. She gets mixed up about that, and a lot of other things. And she’s dying.

She doesn’t have a name, this willowy old lady in Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women.” She doesn’t need a name. Albee calls her simply A, but she is complicated. That is, her life, her long life, has been complicated. There was happiness, a marriage, some love, infidelity, a lot of money and even more pain. She had a son, but that relationship rotted early.

“Three Tall Women,” so potently and grippingly played out at Court Theatre, is Albee’s paean to family values and the spiritual uplift that is domestic convention. Thus we learn the greatest reward of long life: the many times you can revisit compromise and replay heartbreak.

Character A in this one-woman play for three actors is companioned by the presences of B and C. In the first act, B is the old woman’s middle-aged care-giver, attentive, supportive and bored. C is a young representative of the law firm that manages A’s affairs. She proves to be a remarkably insensitive kid, petulant and spiteful.

But Act I serves mainly to acquaint us with A in the present, in her frailty and dementia. She believes people are trying to steal from her. Who knows, maybe she’s right. She’s also fond of repetitive reminiscences about her girlhood, how she loved to ride horses, how her mother was strict but fair. Or was that her father?

When she can’t remember clearly, she begins to sob. The care-giver has seen and heard it all before, many times. She can recite along, as if this were all a collection of oft-repeated children’s rhymes. The kid from the law firm doesn’t get it, finds this whole dementia-laced cant annoying. But then A takes a sudden turn for the worse and we’re catapulted on to the real deal: Act II, when we’re reintroduced to A, B and C as keenly interested observers of this sad figure recumbent on a bed, its face shrouded in an oxygen mask.

In Act II, the two companions of a now perfectly lucid, 90-something A (Lois Markle) are transformed into two former versions of her — in the bitterness of middle age (Mary Beth Fisher) and at the optimistic, uncrushed age of 26 (Maura Kidwell).

Now the concision, eloquence and ringing truth of Albee’s writing, exemplified in Markle’s sad, random and funny ruminations on A’s younger days in Act I, blossoms in full flower.   

We also find ourselves staring at a logical crisis: If A (that wretched figure on the bed) is to B (the woman) as B is to C (the girl), what hope is there for either C or B?

That’s the fearful question posed again and again by the youthful embodiment of the old woman. And Kidwell, in an energized performance, embraces that anxiety with heart and mind, challenging the inevitability of what lies ahead or flat-out refusing to become either of the older women in her future. But what must be shall be in this existential loop, as Fisher’s mid-life character reminds her younger self most caustically.

Woman B, no longer young, not yet old but well-worn by the vagaries and necessities of life’s harsh way, is the play’s tragic figure. Fisher’s performance is galvanizing, as she recalls a miserable marriage and spits out the story of a defiant son who even in his debauched youth mocked her motherhood. Fisher’s seething rant on the inequity of her marriage and the awfulness of her son, the clear and specific counterpart to A’s demented rambling in Act I, marks the play’s emotional apex and turning point.

And so it remains for Markle, as the spiritual second self of that shell of a human being on the bed, to provide the long perspective on this less than happy-ever-after life. And to achieve her own closure. Without denying or mitigating what is past, Markle’s stately character, rising to her full height, offers the playwright’s grace.

To sleep, perchance to dream again.

Through Feb. 13. Call (773) 753-4472.

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Lawrence B. Johnson
Lawrence B. Johnson is a performing arts critic specializing in theater and classical music. He is the former international wine writer for The Detroit News. The recipient of many journalism awards, Johnson has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, The Milwaukee Sentinel and magazines running the gamut from Musical America and Opera News to Playboy. Johnson, who grew up in Indiana, is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he received a degree in humanistic studies with concentrations in French literature, philosophy and music history. In 1975, he was awarded a mid-career journalism fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities for study at the University of Michigan, where he focused on classical Greek drama, Shakespeare and modern playwrights. He has taught journalism, criticism and music history at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wayne State University and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.