Three Tall Women

Anna Hagen, Beatrice Zeilinger and Meaghan Chenosky
Anna Hagan, Beatrice Zeilinger and Meaghan Chenosky. Credit: Tim Matheson

At the Performing Arts Lodge (PAL) until November 9. 7:30PM curtain.

Posted October 26, 2014

Telus tells us the future is friendly. I’m not convinced. Playwright Edward Albee takes a hard look at old age in Pulitzer prize-winning (1994) Three Tall Women and, frankly, it doesn’t look like a lot of fun: incontinence, loss of mobility, loss of memory, and the inability to stop blithering about the past.

In this most autobiographical play of Albee’s, actor Anna Hagan is a ninety-one year old woman (or is it ninety-two, she can’t be sure) simply called ‘A’. Fifty-two year old ‘B’ (Beatrice Zeilinger ) is A’s 24-hour, live-in caregiver; and visiting on business from A’s lawyer is twenty-six year old ‘C’ (Meaghan Chenosky). Three stages of life. Three outlooks on life. A: muddled, cantankerous, coquettish and proud, adrift between the past and the present. B: patient, accommodating, realistic, no-nonsense. C: impatient, patronizing, fearless but mostly just young.

Directing for Western Gold Theatre, Terence Kelly sets the action on a proscenium stage and when the velvet, tasseled curtain gets drawn we find the three women seated in A’s elegant bedroom (designed by Glenn MacDonald and R. Todd Parker). A has led a life of privilege after marrying a short, rich, one-eyed man who bought her expensive gifts and made her laugh. They had a son who, she now claims, never comes to visit. B, however, says he does. (Actor Matt Reznek is the non-speaking son in Act 2.)

Meaghan Chenosky, Anna Hagen and Beatrice Zeilinger Credit: Tim Matheson
Act 1: Meaghan Chenosky, Anna Hagan and Beatrice Zeilinger
Credit: Tim Matheson

Act 1 is long and static. B mediates between C and A who becomes increasingly cranky and, worse, self-pitying. There’s little action.

But don’t leave at intermission.

Act 2 really picks up as Albee ‘unpacks’ the frail and whiny A. Hagan is now elegant, rational A at sixty-something. Zeilinger is now A as a well turned-out fifty-two year old. And Chenosky is A as a sexually liberated twenty-six year old flapper. It takes a moment to see what Albee has done. Act 1 is necessary – although arguably too long – to set the stage for Act 2 where Albee shows us what he wants us to see: A interacting with her younger selves.

Far from ninety-one or two, Hagan is, nevertheless, a believable, acerbic nonagenarian in Act 1 with her shuffling walk and quick transformations from coquette to crone. “I was the strong one”, A repeatedly tells us. “I had to be.” As the sixty-odd year old in Act 2, however, Hagan charms us with her character’s wit and wisdom.

As B in Act 1, Zeilinger is enduring and non-judgmental. In Act 2, she rages as the mother who discovers her husband has “the morals of a store rat” and finds out her son is a homosexual. Gone are all the earlier, kindly qualities when Zeilinger lets loose her character’s fury at the way her life has turned out.

Albee poses the question: how would we, if we could see our future self, carry on? In Act 2, Chenosky (as A at twenty-six) defiantly says, “I will not become you” when she sees herself at fifty-two and over sixty. But we do become ourselves. And those who say they will never become like their fathers or their mothers, frequently do. Chenosky captures that youthful denial in both Act 1 and 2: alive, in-the-moment, unwilling to accept what one of the other characters claims: “Children should be made aware they’re dying from the moment they’re born.”

Three Tall Women is darkly funny and for those who spend any time contemplating their own demise (and Albee claims we all do) it’s an unsentimental look at growing old. The best part of aging, according to A in her sixties is, “There’s a lot of stuff I don’t have to go through anymore.” Amen to that.

Act 2: Beatrice Zeilinger, Meaghan Chenosky and Anna Hagen Credit: Tim Matheson
Act 2: Beatrice Zeilinger, Meaghan Chenosky and Anna Hagan
Credit: Tim Matheson