The last time a play by Edward Albee came to the Mechanic Theatre, the leads were dressed as lizards. Two decades later, in Albee's "Three Tall Women," the lead is still cold-blooded. But this Pulitzer Prize-winning play is not only more emotionally accessible, it's also a fascinating examination of the ravages of change, with a performance of jewel-like clarity in the starring role.
Albee's most personal play, "Three Tall Women" is based on his late adoptive mother -- a woman with whom he had a contentious relationship. On stage, however, he approaches her with almost objective understanding and even respect.
Marian Seldes' depiction of this matriarchial figure -- "maternal" would be far too warm a word to describe this imperious, bigoted dowager -- is one of the most powerful performances to travel with a road production in recent memory.
The depth of Seldes' portrayal of "A" -- as the character is identified -- can partly be explained by her history with the play. Seldes originally portrayed the second of the show's three women, the one known as "B." Due to the unusual nature of this play, however, they are actually one and the same.
That's because this play about transformation contains its own ingenious transformation. In Act I, A is a nonagenarian in declining health, attended by a middle-aged caretaker (B) and visited by a young lawyer (C). After intermission, however, we gradually realize that all three characters represent A at different stages in her life.
So, having played B, Seldes had already mastered an aspect of A. And her A isn't merely tall, she's prodigious. Her left arm in a sling, her right wielding a cane that could easily turn into a weapon, she holds forth from a brocade armchair, the queen -- or rather, dictator -- of all she surveys.
One minute she's barking at B and C; the next, she's weeping for no apparent reason. But Seldes' real mastery comes in the quieter passages when she reminisces about her past: How she met her husband; how he lewdly presented her with a diamond bracelet; and how her son and only child disappointed her and left home -- returning after an absence of more than 20 years, when she became ill and neither one could forgive the other.
The son -- Albee's alter ego, played by Michael Rhodes -- is also a character in the play, but a silent one, which makes sense when you realize the script speaks for him.
The roles of B and C are anything but silent, however, particularly in the second act when young C rages against the idea that she will eventually turn into mean-spirited A. As C, Christina Rouner combines the sense of a woman coming of age in the 1920s, as A did, with a more modern sensibility, demonstrating the timelessness of the play's theme of the inevitability of old age and death.
The character of C leads the audience across the gap that divides the realistic first act from the non-naturalistic second. Telling a story that includes more and more of the same words we first heard spoken by A, Rouner's C eases the way, allowing us to accept A's co-existence with two representatives of her younger self.
Accepting Michael Learned's B as an earlier incarnation of A is a bit tougher, not only because there's no physical resemblance, but also because Learned lacks the aristocratic bearing of Seldes. Learned is more effective in the early going, when B serves as the reasonable, sympathetic mediator between domineering A and impatient C.
Director Lawrence Sacharow keeps the interaction between the three main characters fluid and natural in the first half and makes the staging subtly more presentational in the generation-leaping second half.
The imaginative jump that "Three Tall Women" takes during intermission makes this drama one that, to borrow the title of Albee's first Pulitzer Prize winner, strikes a delicate balance between his earlier plays and his subsequent, more abstract, experimental work. To toy with another of his titles, it also answers the question: Who's afraid of Edward Albee? With this play, no one should be -- particularly when splendid Marian Seldes is the fulcrum of that delicate balance.
'Three Tall Women'
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays, through March 10
Call: (410) 625-1400