PROVIDED BY THE BLUE BARN THEATRE
From left to right, the Three Tall Women: Sonia Keffer, Ruth Rath, Kirstin Kluver.
Anyone who loves theater that doesn’t settle for warm and fuzzy must wrestle with Edward Albee’s reputation. Is he our greatest living playwright? The Blue Barn makes that case convincingly, and its Three Tall Women proves again that director Susan Clement-Toberer can cast and interpret Albee superbly. Ruth Rath should win acting honors as she portrays a 91-year-old, believed to represent Albee’s adoptive mother. The other women, Sonia Keffer and Kirstin Kluver, offer equally classy portrayals, in Act I as caregiver and lawyer’s accountant, then in Act II as the elderly one when she was 52 and 26, arguing over the arc of their life. Albee makes an appearance at her deathbed, arriving as he was at 18, when he left the mother who couldn’t accept his homosexuality. Played by Chris Fowler as “The Boy,” he doesn’t speak, but wears feelings on his face as he is spoken of with regret by the older women. The playwright, however, is hardly silent when it comes to this mother, who begins the evening forgetful, incontinent and self-pitying, yet with plenty of fight left. She’s more confident in act two when Rath and Keffer tease Kluver about her 20-something optimism. The world-weary ones recall when they “used to be tall,” and mock the late husband they call “the penguin” and “the little one-eyed man.” And the hopeful young one promises, “I will not become you.” They smile knowingly, and eventually a final discussion ensues as the girl insists that there must have been happy moments in their regret-filled lives. Yes, Keffer’s 52-year-old admits, it’s happy when, “You’ve been through enough shit” that you know the troubles that lie ahead. For Rath’s nonagenarian, with her wry smile, the happiest moment comes … well, save her conclusion for your own viewing of the final scene. Suffice to say Albee offers a more cynical view of life’s journey than many of us are willing to share. Therein lies the heart of the matter when it comes to Albee’s reputation. Is it too misanthropic a perspective or does the humorous and sharply pointed insight into human shortcomings enrich us? In this case, the brilliant presentation by Clement-Toberer defeats my resistance to Albee’s cynicism. It begins with the three tall women seated in the elder’s bedroom, veiled by a scrim that Fowler’s Boy pulls back to more fully reveal a handsome set designed by Martin Scott Machitto. The bed, backed by creative wallpaper, is flanked by the three in chairs — Kluver working at a desk, Keffer ready to rise from her chair to attend Rath who sits, left arm in a sling, in a high-back chair which confirms the overall impression of a prosperous life style. In Act I, the elderly mother spars with the other two, who represent all those she mistrusts in a life where she was taught “to make my own way” and “to keep an eye out.” We learn she loved to ride, loved horses, and we see two white ones galloping in paired paintings. Perhaps the happiest we eventually see all three is when the other two huddle at Rath’s chair as she talks of a time when she sat naked, except for her ample jewelry, at her bedroom vanity. They lean closer, grinning eagerly as she describes her husband, also naked, entering the room with a bracelet dangling from his arousal. But we learned earlier that she “didn’t like sex much,” so the outcome is deflating as the bracelet falls to the floor. I’ve been identifying these women by the cast’s names and their character’s ages rather than Albee’s Woman A (Rath), Woman B (Keffer) and Woman C (Kluver), letters which serve the playwright’s purpose to communicate a common identity. Whatever you call them, two of the three tall women tell the younger that life condemns them to become shorter as time goes by. “So it goes,” Keffer says, in what might be seen as Albee’s homage to Kurt Vonnegut. If life shrinks us, theater expands our view of the experience, and the evidence the playwright gives of the wit and resilience of this three-in-one trinity makes surviving all the shit seem worth the struggle. It happens and then we die, but, oh, we rage, rage against the dying of the light. Three Tall Women runs through April 2, except March 25-27, at the Blue Barn Theatre’s Downtown Space, 614 S. 11th St., 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 6 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25, $20 students and seniors. Call 402.345.1576.