Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women" is tough and brilliant, and its method is completely original. But it can be -- and is, at Columbia's Rep Stage -- a bit slow out of the gate: In an elegant, cautiously tasteful bedroom, three tall women talk about things.
Most of the talking is done by A, a wealthy 92-year-old (or is she really 91, as she claims?) who is so self-absorbed that she talks mostly about herself. C talks about A, too. C is a businesslike 26-year-old from the office that manages A's affairs. She has arrived to complain that A isn't paying her bills or signing her checks. The 52-year-old B, on hand as a kind of nurse to A, mediates between the generations.
In a conventional play, the business of A's business would drive the plot. Not here. Albee is working on a character study, and young C's worldly concerns simply aren't important to ancient, irascible, incontinent A, whose rambling memories gradually create an unpleasant portrait of a racist, intolerant old woman.
This means that A has to hold the stage by sheer force of personality, and while Faith Potts effectively shows us A's cold calculations and rigidity, her portrayal is not quite as emotionally mercurial as the character Albee has written. Showing us the whole of A becomes easier after intermission. At the end of Act 1, A suffers a stroke; in Act 2, all three women are A, at different ages.
It is almost breathtaking to watch a surprisingly brutal, essentially lonely character like this talk to herself over time. The 26-year-old swears she won't become the nasty old hag we've come to know in the first act, and the 52-year-old makes it painfully clear just how inevitable that evolution is.
The Rep Stage production, directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner and Celeste Lawson, is heavy going early, and never entirely catches fire. To its credit, the performance always sounds intelligent -- no small matter given the utter precision of Albee's language.
Potts, Valerie Costantini as B, and Susan Lynskey as C play their roles with debonair carriage and easy intelligent thought as they pad around the coral carpet on designer Tony Cisek's deliberately immaculate circular set. Costantini's blithe pragmatism in Act 1 (during much of which she grins like a cat in the sun) gives way to full-blown cynicism in Act 2, though Lynskey underplays C's mortification by, and mortal dread of, A in both acts.
Despite much evident good sense, the performance is almost as airless as A's bright sterile bedroom. The characters, engaged in a kind of waltz of death, don't flow and breathe and live in ways that would make them more than points in a scheme. That's critical, because the play's greatness comes from a gut-level recognition of A's monstrousness, followed by the sheer grace of the second act, which is about understanding, and, to a degree, forgiving what can't be changed.
You don't need to know that "Three Tall Women" is about Albee's mother to be moved by it. You may need a production in which the play's subtleties and "delicate balances," as Albee once put it, are more fully exploited.
Rep Stage presents Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women" at Howard Community College's Theatre Outback through Nov. 14. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ticket prices range from $12 to $19, with a $3 discount for senior citizens. Half-price tickets are available for students. Reservations and information: 410- 772-4900.