NEW YORK — If there is a statute of limitations on dramatic exile--a time to stop measuring Edward Albee against the man who wrote "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" 32 years ago--this must be it.
"Three Tall Women," which opened in an unflinching production at the intimate Vineyard Theater, is a devastating look at a certain kind of woman's life to the end.
As uncompromising as the intellectual terrorism of his earliest successes, this new one--with the splendid Myra Carter as emotional centerpiece--should be irresistible to audiences with a weakness for smart old women, to those of us who cannot see a shriveling female form without yearning to know the stories disappearing with her.
At first, the territory seems to be Albee-allegory country. The three women arranged around the wealthy suburban bedroom are identified in the program, ominously, as A, B and C. Fears of generic symbolism, however, could not be further from the vivid specificity of the truths. These women--who are and who are not a single pampered widow--live in a stylistic combination of intense realism and shared internal monologue.
How does a hopeful young woman solidify into a formidable matron, then into a suspicious 92-year-old--and end up an unforgiving, unmoving thing with an oxygen mask on a bed? As Albee tells it, the journey is as disturbing as it is engrossing.
In the first act, the callow young woman (Jordan Baker) has come as an inquisitor from the old woman's lawyer. The matron (Marian Seldes, folded over like a buzzard on a rock) is the resentful, yet respectful nurse, cleaning up the indignities of the aged. The second act ties the women together in a moving story of the loneliness of satisfactory lives, of surviving and settling.
Lawrence Sacharow, who recently directed the American premiere of this play at his River Arts Repertory in Woodstock, N.Y., has staged it with simplicity and nuance. The triumph, however, is Carter, who also created the role in Vienna (where it had its world premiere in 1991). What a performance this is, a nonstop cadenza of mood swings, filled with the pride, cruelty, sorrow and playfulness of a difficult but worthy woman.
Carter, powdered in pink and decorated with jewelry and sobbing in frustration, delivers a stream-of-consciousness ramble that, in less than two hours, becomes one of the great psychological portraits of the life cycle.
Albee, who fled to regional theaters and Europe after the Broadway dismissal of "The Man Who Had Three Arms" in 1983, has been writing all along. When his early one-act plays were published in 1960, he wrote in the preface that he was "just at the beginning of what I hope will be a long and satisfying life in the theater." It's time--long past time--that he lived it here.