By some strange coincidence, Boston is currently seeing two of Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize winners onstage simultaneously (so it's really too bad no one did the third, Seascape, to make a trifecta). And the good news is that both are receiving accomplished productions - the Merrimack has mounted a haunting version of A Delicate Balance up in Lowell (reviewed below), and now the Lyric Stage has opened a less complex, but still solidly affecting, production of Three Tall Women (Anne Scurria, Liz Hayes, and Paula Plum, at left), Albee's "exorcism" of his notoriously difficult adoptive mother.
As the putative source for the many brutal harridans of her son's ouevre, Mrs. Albee has cast a long shadow through American letters - indeed, although she served as a kind of anti-inspiration, she probably rivals Petrarch's Laura or Shakespeare's Dark Lady in her literary impact - and many have claimed that Three Tall Women somehow unlocks her secrets, or at least reveals the key to the enmity between mother and son. On these points, though, I remain unconvinced. Mr. Albee reveals few specifics of their decades-long battle, other than her horror at his homosexuality (which may be deplorable, but hardly makes her a monster), and the casual racism and social arrogance endemic to her class (the Albees were rich WASPs, and she was a third wife - fill in the rest yourself). Mrs. Albee was clearly a handful, but, it's hard to pin on her the ruthless emotional cruelty of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, at least on the basis of Three Tall Women.
Of course perhaps the play operates not so much as an exorcism as an absolution - although an absolution of a curiously humiliating kind (in that it focuses both on Mom's debilitation as well as her sexual history). The opening act of Three Tall Women concerns an ailing, wealthy nonagerian, denominated simply as "A" (Anne Scurria), in the last days of a long decline. Attended by a middle-aged nurse, "B" (Paula Plum), and a young lawyer, "C" (Liz Hayes), she holds a kind of cracked, cranky court in the plush confines of her boudoir, clinging uncertainly to her memories even as they slip away, wailing in pain at her ailments, and casting a gimlet eye on her two interlocutors, the younger of whom is horrified by her antics, while the older is simply resigned. The act ends abruptly, as a stroke descends on A, and Albee abandons realism for a kind of metaphysical mystery tour of her life in Act II, with B and C pressed into duty (rather like Zeke and Hickory in The Wizard of Oz) as her former selves.
The resulting three-way is not only a striking theatrical idea, but is often touching, sometimes gripping, and refreshingly unsentimental about the ravages of time on both our bodies and our ideals ("I will never become you!" insists the young C, to the outright laughter of her older selves). Still, the long scene plays few of the intriguing tricks Albee has deployed elsewhere, and so feels at time a bit bald (at least until its haunting close, borrowed rather obviously from Beckett). And needless to say, Albee tries to appall the bourgeoisie - here his leverage is a close consideration of his mother's sexual peccadilloes, which to me, at least, after a blackly comic tale about a diamond bracelet and an erection, felt a bit thin. (Ever ponder your mother giving a blow job? Nope, I haven't, either, and I don't think that makes me bourgeois.) A more satisfying dramatic statement might have been made about the silent Albee factotum who arrives at his mother's bedside - but here the playwright reveals little that we don't already know.
Anne Scurria and Paula Plum find the fun in dysfunction in Three Tall Women.
Still, the play sticks with you - it has what used to be called "good bones." Its harsh insistence on our mutual decay is a useful tonic, and its gallows humor is somehow bleakly appealing; few playwrights have the guts to remind us that we're all dying from the day we're born, and fewer still have the skill to make it ruefully funny. At the Lyric, the humor sometimes overshadows the rue, and on Cristina Todesco's beautiful but perhaps too brightly solid set, the play occasionally feels less suggestive than it might. Still, the skillful cast offers a trio of compelling, multi-faceted characterizations. I was least taken with Anne Scurria, who's neither quite frail enough, nor quite unloveable enough, for A - understandably cranky rather than preternaturally vicious, Scurria seemed slightly unwilling to risk the audience's affection in Act I. Once ensconced in the philosophical ether of Act II, however, she delivered a fluidly detailed, memorably witty performance. Paula Plum, meanwhile, was just about perfect as caretaker B, and nicely poised in Act II - but perhaps should erupt with a bit more unexplained bile toward her prodigal son (their subtext, I think, is a mutual, and oddly competitive, sexual scorn). Liz Hayes has the least developed role, but certainly held her own against these two powerhouses, and struck more than one poignant spark as C began to perceive the inevitable (even if her final capitulation was a bit indistinct).
Which is perhaps the overarching point of Three Tall Women - that one cannot see or even understand one's eventual perspective, and that even hatred must fall before Time's scythe. Auden once wrote that time, "that is intolerant of the brave and innocent . . . worships language and forgives / everyone by whom it lives." I thought of those lines as A tells us at the finish that the greatest happiness in life comes at its ending, "when we can stop," even as she's vaguely aware that somehow, she's still going to go on. Perhaps, in the end, Mrs. Albee unlocked the springs of her adopted son's language, and thus the source of both forgiveness and immortality.