Play makes us look at people we become

Review: `Three Tall Women' may have facing death as a plot, but the Center Stage show is definitely full of life.

January 17, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

For most of the first act of Center Stage's largely exquisite production of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, actress Scotty Bloch sits in an armchair and talks.

Sometimes she laughs. More often she cries. But she always commands the stage.

Bloch is playing a 92-year-old dowager identified merely as "A." She is attended by a middle-aged caretaker ("B") and a young lawyer ("C"). But though she requires the services of both women, A clearly is in charge.

Her trappings and appearance couldn't be more elegant - from set designer John Coyne's powder blue boudoir (and with delicate French furniture and damask bedclothes, this definitely is a boudoir, as opposed to a bedroom) to her beautifully coifed white hair, perfect manicure and quilted blue silk robe (designed by Meg Neville with a quilted blue arm sling to match).

But A is arrogant, suspicious and bigoted. In short, she's not a nice woman, and Bloch's portrayal of her is thoroughly captivating. Consider the first time, early on, when A breaks into tears. The supremely manipulative A is doing this purely for effect, as we realize when Bloch glances slyly at the other two women to make sure the effect got across.

Albee, who won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for this play, based A on his adoptive mother, and a young Albee stand-in appears in the second act in the form of a silent character called "The Boy" (Jacob Zahniser). But Three Tall Women is about much more than one man's adversarial relationship with his mother.

Nor is this glorious play the straightforward narrative it initially appears to be. Without giving away the coup de theatre that occurs in the second act, suffice it to say that this is a play about nothing less than what makes us the people we become.

Director Tim Vasen has taken intriguing chances with the second act, with slightly mixed results. Act Two veers into abstraction, and this is signaled by designer Coyne's set, in which the back and side walls disappear, revealing a cobalt blue background, bifurcated by a horizontal white gash. Because a blue Mark Rothko-like painting had hung on the bedroom wall in the first act, the new background looks a little like a blown-up detail of that painting. But it also ominously and too obviously suggests a flatline on an electrocardiogram.

The acting style also undergoes a change after intermission, with each actress occasionally stepping to the edge of the stage and directly addressing the audience. Underlining the play's shift into non-naturalistic territory, it's an interpretive choice that at times feels excessive. At other times, however, particularly when the character of C (Anne Louise Zachry) steps forward, the direct address becomes a plea to the audience for understanding and validation.

It isn't just the direct address that differentiates Zachry's performance in this act, however. The actress' gestures also become expansive, even flighty, to the point where she doesn't seem merely to be in a different act, but in a different play.

In contrast, Patricia Hodges handles B's transformation with more finesse. The woman who appeared to be a compassionate peacemaker in Act One is considerably hardened in Act Two, but in both cases she clearly is the same face-the-facts woman.

But Three Tall Women is A's play, and Bloch delivers a performance that succeeds in being frightening and brittle without losing its human core. The only thing that's a little off is that Bloch isn't tall (not even enough to get away with the play's reference to shrinking from osteoporosis). In every other respect, however, this is a performance that stands tall.

Although the plot of Three Tall Women focuses on impending death, the theme is living life, making the most of the present, facing reality and, more importantly, facing mortality. When C asks for reassurance that the happiest times lie ahead, B responds: "The happiest time? Now; now ... always."

Like lightning in a bottle (in this play, it'd be a crystal decanter), Center Stage's production captures that resilient spark.

Three Tall Women

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. most Sundays; 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays. Through Feb. 10

Tickets: $10-$48

Call: 410-332-0033

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