“ THREE TALL WOMEN ” at the San Diego Repertory Theatre & “ FREEDOMLAND ” at the South Coast Repertory Theatre
KPBS AIRDATE: November 5, 1997
Some plays deal with life and death matters: Coming to terms with your family, yourself and your mortality. Finding your place in the universe. But even deadly serious material can be laced with laughter, as shown by a seasoned master and a relative newcomer: Edward Albee and Amy Freed. Both have a lot on their minds.
In “Three Tall Women,” Albee shows why he is among our foremost playwrights, one who has helped change the shape of American drama, with his dazzling words and crystalline artistic vision. The play garnered every major theatrical award, and earned the playwright his third Pulitzer Prize. With good reason. It is a masterwork, shrewdly conceived and constructed, deep and dark and intense, but also funny, surprising, playful and disturbing, brimming with Albee’s signature blend of bitterness and poignance.
“Three Tall Women” is a small-cast play about very Big Themes. About surviving and dying, isolation and identity, loss and loyalty, fidelity and forgiveness, sexuality, reconciliation and the price of a life lived unflinchingly on its own terms.
In the first act, the three characters — A, B and C — appear as a rich old cantankerous widow, her pragmatic caregiver and a callow young lawyer’s representative. But in the second act, they brilliantly evolve into three stages in the life of one difficult woman, at age 92, 52 and 26. The play is highly autobiographical, shining a glaring spotlight on Albee’s crusty, arrogant, paranoid, sometimes monstrous adoptive mother.
The feisty trinity coexist in brutal self-confrontation, accosting each other in accusatory dialogue and sharing revelatory internal monologues. As they watch the dying A, the younger B and C are appalled by what’s to come, from a debilitating stroke to the return of a (silent and) estranged son, whose homosexuality and searing intuition his mother always refused to accept. Albee himself described the piece as a personal “exorcism.” If it is purgative for the playwright, it is provocative, if not cathartic, for the audience. Makes you think about your parents’ lives and your own; how you yourself react to the challenges of life and the inevitability of death.
The production is deeply moving and almost totally satisfying, though the second act does get a bit preachy. Glyn O’Malley has worked with Albee for almost two decades, and he directed the 1991 Vienna world premiere of “Three Tall Women.” At the San Diego Repertory Theatre, he’s cast magnificent veterans of the roles: Lois Markle as an amusingly, frighteningly, thoughtfully ruthless A, and Linda Williams Janke as a no-nonsense B, occasionally amorous or angry, the mid-life peace-maker who claims to have a “360 degree view” of her life.
The only misstep in this production was casting swimsuit model Kathy Ireland as C. She moves awkwardly, and has only one set of gestures, facial expressions and vocal intonations that she uses repeatedly to dull effect. To put someone this inexperienced and talentless in a play of this magnitude is a travesty.
But one error in casting cannot cast a pall over this exceptional, important and intelligent play, which demands to be seen, contemplated, discussed and remembered.
The alienation and search for identity, family dysfunction and confrontation are also memorable in Amy Freed’s “Freedomland,” currently enjoying a delicious world premiere at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa. Well worth the drive, this black comedy focuses on a self-serving, free-thinking, truth-seeking patriarch and his three disaffected children: a painter of clowns, a bomber of churches, a sickly writer of an unfinished feminist doctoral dissertation. Throw in a pregnant girlfriend, an oversexed wife and a bumbling reporter, and you’ve got yourself one helluvan evening of theater. The play is funnier than Albee’s, but no less incisive in its unblinking examination of living and dying.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.