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From left, Mamie Zwettler as C, Martha Henry as A and Lucy Peacock as B in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women.V. Tony Hauser./Handout

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  • Title: Three Tall Women
  • Written by: Edward Albee
  • Director: Diana Leblanc
  • Actors: Martha Henry, Lucy Peacock, Mamie Zwettler
  • Company: Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Studio Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: To October 9, 2021

There are three things that make Three Tall Women an exceptional theatrical experience at the Stratford Festival this pandemic season.

The first is that director Diana Leblanc’s production is the only full indoor production this year – all the other plays are staged outdoors.

The second is that Edward Albee’s play is the only one programmed that runs longer than 90 minutes, albeit with its two hour-long acts presented with a three-hour break in between because of safety-first scheduling.

The third is a central performance by Martha Henry that shows the veteran actor at her monstrous best. It’s unforgettable – which I mean both as praise and as a warning. You might not want the woman she plays stuck in your head.

Three Tall Women, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play split into two long scenes, premiered in Vienna in 1991. It is generally considered to have been Albee’s comeback after a long period of critical disfavour for the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? playwright.

It is a portrait of a rich elderly woman (Henry) who is 91, or perhaps 92; at the very beginning of the play, her exact age is the subject of a debate between her and two women who work for her – a personal support worker (Lucy Peacock) and a lawyer (Mamie Zwettler).

Everything about A – that’s all we get in terms of a name – is in a state of uncertainty. Her body is falling apart, the specifics described in excruciating detail; her mind snaps in and out of focus.

But while she’s completely helpless one moment, she’s a tyrant ordering around her help the next. She speaks with a sophisticated worldliness one second, then like a little girl the next.

She rules from a throne-like chair at centre stage, her only exits being for urgent visits to the bathroom.

Henry’s performance is a reminder of how much more daringly theatrical her generation of stage actors – she’s now in her 80s – can be.

Early on, A weeps for a frighteningly extended period of time, Henry’s eyes seeming to pop out of her head in between the wails. I constantly wanted to look away, yet I couldn’t – it seems an embodiment of the expression “mortal terror.”

Once the fit is over, A’s PSW says, with a hint of sarcasm, “A good cry lets it all out.”

“What’s a bad one do?” A replies, with Henry growling the line out ferociously.

Other parts of Albee’s first act seem almost designed to put an audience to sleep – long, rambling, repetitive monologues about an indistinct past. The controlled contrasts in Leblanc’s production suggest that this soporific effect is intended, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to sit through.

But then another shift: A spellbinding monologue about money and sex that leaves Henry again twisting with terror.

Whew. I needed the three-hour intermission to recover.

What happens in the second act of Three Tall Women is often described as a twist. I think the play functions better, actually, when you know how it works.

Nevertheless – spoiler alert – you’ve been warned.

The same three actors return and are each playing A at three different ages – maybe they always were.

The 26-year-old A (Zwettler) can’t believe she’ll turn into the 52-year-old A (Peacock) – and certainly not the oldest A. The three discuss certain turning points in their collective life while swirling around in light-blue, purple and peach-coloured outfits designed by Francesca Callow.

This is a more balanced section actor-wise: Zwettler, who never sinks into the first act, is luminous in the second, while Peacock gets at least one great speech in which she curdles with hatred for her own son.

Henry still commands attention when needed, sometimes by banging her walker in fury like she did Prospero’s staff in Stratford’s The Tempest a few seasons back.

For a Canadian critic, it’s impossible while watching this part of Three Tall Women not to think of Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay’s great play Albertine in Five Times – which features five actors deconstructing the same woman at different ages, and premiered seven years before Albee’s play. (It’s not implausible that Albee would have known of it – Tremblay translated Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? into French in 1988.)

While there are commonalities between the two playwrights, Tremblay, no matter how brutally honest he was in his depiction of lower-class women in his plays, undergirded his work with a humanism that is less apparent in Albee’s.

Three Tall Women’s A is said to have been inspired by Albee’s rich adoptive mother, with whom he had a difficult relationship – he described the play as act of an personal “exorcism.”

It’s a too-revealing comment: There’s a demonization in the characterization of A that ultimately feels not just nasty, but dramatically limiting.

Albee’s lack of empathy for A wouldn’t be so obvious perhaps if he didn’t insert one silent male character – her outcast, bisexual son (Andrew Iles), who mopes around moodily. The self-pity is evident – and, frankly, unattractive.

In a review of a recent revival on Broadway, New Yorker critic Hilton Als went as far as to call Three Tall Women “female minstrelsy.” It certainly can feel like that when you compare the difference in detail with which the As talk about male genitalia with the vague way they talk about female parts and processes.

But I can’t ignore the fact that a female-led creative team is tackling Three Tall Women here. There must be something incredibly compelling about the play to Henry and Leblanc for them to work so hard to get it to the stage even in the middle of a pandemic.

It does give Henry a Lear to play, at least – and one that doesn’t involve having to carry a Cordelia.

From left, Mamie Zwettler as C, Lucy Peacock as B and Martha Henry as A in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women.V. Tony Hauser./Handout