How many tall women are there? In Three Tall Women, which recently received a superb production at Shadowbox Theatre, the answer is more complicated than it appears. Playwright Edward Albee won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for this intriguing but decidedly non-Euclidean drama.
The cast of characters is somewhat algebraic, for the three women are designated by the letters A, B and C. Mary Pauley plays A, a superannuated, rich, haughty widow who spends most of her time in an armchair in her bedroom. One moment she lets out peals of laughter and in the next dissolves into tears. She also has a mean streak, accusing everyone of robbing her blind and threatening vengeance. In truth, however, she requires the help of her keeper B (Jane Catalanello McNulty) for all her basic daily needs — getting up, getting to the bathroom, etc. Much of the first act revolves around A and her reminiscences, and Pauley captivates with an intense performance.
B takes an ironic attitude toward her elderly charge. She seems to have heard the stories hundreds of times. The youngest tall woman, C (Jennifer Growden), represents the law firm handling A's affairs, which is no easy task, because A dumps her mail in a drawer and forgets about it.
Not much actually happens in Act 1, but it's intriguing and entertaining. It feels like one of Samuel Beckett's claustrophobic worlds where the drama is more about man's dead-end existence than about any conflict on stage. After insisting on being put to bed, A suddenly implodes with a stroke.
In Act 2, Albee throws a curve by calling all of Act 1 into question. The old woman is still in bed, but she enters the bedroom as full of life as ever, accompanied by the other two women. They become themselves as different ages and invert their age gaps.
Albee uses the caustic exploration of youth, middle age and senescence to reflect on the way people change as they move through life. We do feel duped, however, by his sleight of hand, for the three women had clearly separate roles and identities in the first act. In the second act, they morph into one another in a postmodern effect.
A tip of the hat to Ken Pauley on his directorial debut and to the actors for their outstanding performances. — Dalt Wonk