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Making Things Inviting for 'Three Tall Women'


A concert play for three acting instruments, Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women" is perhaps his most perfectly calibrated play since "A Delicate Balance." Its many awards in 1994 (Pulitzer, New York Drama Critics Circle, Outer Circle Critics, London Evening Standard) confirmed that Albee was at the top of his game.

Even with a scattering of problems, Saddleback College's revival in Mission Viejo under Patrick J. Fennell's direction confirms Albee's exquisite game.

Without sentimentality or realism, Albee presents the eldest, A (Valerie McIlroy); the middle-aged B (Kathy Genovese); and the youngest, C (Erin Edminston) in two frameworks.

In Act 1, A is a dowager for whom B is a home-care companion; C is the insensitive attorney trying to make sense of A's finances.

In a triumph of dramaturgical cubism, Act 2 observes the three from a different angle and time-space quadrant: A remains the eldest; B is A's 52-year-old self, and C is A at 26. Surreally, A (or the body of A, in a neat trick by costumer/ makeup designer Diane Lewis) is also dead in her bed, watched by her silent son (Rick Boyer).

This is a cold-sounding scheme for what is perhaps Albee's warmest play. As absurdist as ever, still in the tradition of Samuel Beckett, "Three Tall Women" is also richly reflective, a fascinating case of a male playwright contemplating his mortality through three female voices.

The lead instrument in this concert of words and memories is A, and McIlroy is magnificently commanding, disarming us or shifting into such intimacy that A is no longer an Albee construct, but seems McIlroy herself.

Hemmed in by Act 1, where she can only react to A, Genovese notably expands in Act 2, teetering between memories of her sillier self and concerns about aging. Edminston is the shrill instrument in this trio, unconvincing as the attorney and unaffecting as A at 26.

Boyer suggests a dimension that reading the play cannot. Fennell directs with sensitivity to the text but no whiff of the academic.

This is in some ways Albee's response to Beckett's "Happy Days"--which, as it happens, is at the Empire Theatre in Santa Ana.


"Three Tall Women," Saddleback College Studio Theatre, 28000 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo. Weekdays and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 3 p.m. Ends Sunday. $8-$9. (949) 582-4656. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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