Madison Theatre Guild
Sarah Whelan, Judy Kimball and Sarah Hoover in Madison Theatre Guild's Three Tall Women.
Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, which won the playwright his third Pulitzer Prize, is really a story of one tall woman -- a hateful, paranoid bigot made bearable, in the Madison Theatre Guild production, by Sarah Whelan's strong performance and the occasional comic moment. The character is based on Albee's mother, and after completing this review, I plan to send him a card expressing sympathy for his parental misfortune.
As the play opens, Whelan's elderly character, listed in the playbill only as "A," has one foot in the grave, but the other foot is still kicking. The character called B, played with sympathy by Judy Kimball, is A's caretaker, a 50-something woman with a caustic wit and enough spunk to serve back what A dishes out. The woman known as C (Sarah Hoover) is a 20-something sent on behalf of A's law firm to attend to a pile of neglected paperwork and bills.
Act I is one unbroken scene, monopolized by the mostly nonsensical (and often offensive) rambling of A, and punctuated by several interludes of her nearly soiling herself. Whelan's performance is captivating, funny and heartbreaking. In less capable hands this scene would be unbearable.
Less enjoyable is Sarah Hoover's unsympathetic portrayal of C, the sanest character in the play and the least tolerable. C's relentless biting sarcasm feels unmotivated and tiresome, every line delivered with sass more befitting a high school freshman than the 26-year-old employee of a law firm.
Judy Kimball's B is a bright spot, caught between the depressing decline of A and the self-certainty of C. Her character is cynical and pugnacious, and she is the most relatable person on stage.
Act II is essentially a different play. The three women portray A at distinct stages of her life, and the intent is to illuminate how A became the unhappy person she is today. We see the slow unraveling of a too-proud woman, those seeds of unpleasantness planted long before she felt them growing in her heart. In many ways, Three Tall Women is a cautionary tale of what we can become when we let ignorance and hatred breed within us.
If Act I is a senile nonagenarian's tiresome tirade, Act II is a relentless lecture on the thesis "Life sucks and then you die." The older A and B gleefully inform C of the hell that awaits her as she ages, piling story upon story of pain, sickness and an utter absence of love.
"What about the happy times?" C asks desperately, crushed in the avalanche of her own toppling dreams. Unfortunately, there are none to be found.
Three Tall Women opened Friday at the Bartell Theatre and runs through Saturday, October 8.