Three Tall Women | Critical Review by Marian Faux

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Three Tall Women.
This section contains 955 words
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Critical Review by Marian Faux

SOURCE: A review of Three Tall Women, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 46, No. 4, December, 1994, pp. 541-3.

In the following review, Faux provides a laudatory assessment of Three Tall Women.

Edward Albee's third Pulitzer prize-winning play Three Tall Women is a meditation on a woman's life and mortality cleverly viewed from three different stages (no pun intended) of life: youth, middle age, and old age. In the first act, a woman known only as "A," played splendidly by English actress Myra Carter, who originated the role at Vienna's English Theatre in June 1991 (see Theatre Journal, 44: 251-52), is a stately and very rich powerhouse trying to come to terms with her diminished powers—physical, mental, and emotional.

As is usual in Albee plays, what is clear is also often contradictory. A's character being no exception, she was born to a lower-middle class family, to parents who may, or may not, have been overly strict, or overly permissive. In any event, they send her to live in New York City. Her mission: To marry rich. Because A has no fortune of her own, her choices are limited, and she ends up marrying a rich, short, one-eyed man whose wit and fortune are real enough but whose social cachet is obviously yet to be determined by her. By her own account, A does her job admirably, and she and her husband end up an American version of horsey country gentry.

A is attended by a crone named B, "crone" being the only word to describe Marian Seldes' first-act performance as A's solicitous (but perhaps malicious), mostly kind (but perhaps cruel) caretaker.

Also present when the play opens is a beautiful young lawyer—C—who has come to visit in order to lecture A on her financial affairs. (She's played by Jordan Baker.) With her beauty and youth, C is incapable of either sympathy or empathy, unable to imagine that she could ever turn into a peevish, impotent old woman. She's impatient at having to listen to the reminiscences of A, even though A was once a great beauty like herself.

Act 1 ends abruptly when A suffers a stroke in mid-sentence. In a wonderful kind of reversal of fates that can only happen in the theatre, in act 2 C does become A—at a slightly insipid and narcissistic twenty-six years of age. The only surprise from her is her determination to have a little fun before she settles down to a marriage that she openly acknowledges will be more about business than love. Carter's character becomes herself about twenty years earlier, still spritely and full of a kind of wisdom that had abandoned her in act 1. Most miraculously, B is transformed into A in sumptuous middle age, a woman truly in her prime. The women spar with one another to show what really happened, or should have happened, in their lives.

If a middle-aged A had the best perspective, an elderly A is the most contemplative, the most capable of parsing out what exactly it was that she accomplished—or failed to accomplish. She no longer cares about the luxurious surroundings she's spent her entire life struggling to obtain, and in fact is no longer sure the struggle was worth it: "It's all glitter," she observes. But her young self disagrees: "No, it's tangible proof we're valued."

This is a highly personal play. In countless interviews, Albee has said he wrote it as a kind of exorcism of his adoptive mother, who, he claims, never learned to like, let alone love him. If so, he appears to have come to terms with their relationship, including how she lived her life, and even manages to be quite generous toward her—and by extension, to other women like her. While making the point that this is a world where all women are kept in one way or another, he still manages to see what it took for her to survive. "They all hated me because I was strong," A recalls. "Strong and tall."

Albee is especially empathic to the middle-aged A. In our ageist society, where a woman's power is widely viewed as declining in direct proportion to her age (and diminishing beauty), he introduces a novel idea, namely, that age fifty can be as satisfying to a woman as to a man. Age fifty really was the best time, an elegantly mid-life Marian Seldes pronounces, the only time when "you're really happy," when you "get a 360-degree view" of your life.

James Noone has designed a set that is appropriately Park Avenue WASP—heavy draperies; a small French chair; a large, well-dressed bed; lush fabrics; and small pillows laden with fringe and braid. It all implies a sort of order than cannot be invaded by the outside world—although in this play, it is indeed order, of a most personal sort, that is crumbling before our eyes. At various times, both C and B (the latter playing a middle-aged A) smooth the fringe on the same pillow. To the elderly A, though, the pillow no longer symbolizes anything. Order in her life now boils down to her daily struggle against the ravages of a weak bladder.

For a playwright who has built a career around challenging audiences with his minimalism and obscurantism, it's ironic that Albee's two most successful plays, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Three Tall Women, are his most accessible and also his most traditional, more so in their staging but also in their language and ideas. Can it be that his adoptive mother's death has freed him to confront his demons more directly than he has done in past plays? Like Tennessee Williams, the family—his family—hás always been his great subject, but rarely has he managed to write about it with so little personal rancor.

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This section contains 955 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Marian Faux
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