Every few years, St. Louis has a period where remarkable theater performances pop up on multiple stages simultaneously or nearly so. We may be having one right now. In another anniversary season, St. Louis Actors’ Studio, celebrating its 10th, has opened with Three Tall Women.
Playwright Edward Albee, who died recently, is in a class with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Perhaps he even leads the class. This is certainly one of his best works, and one of the least unsympathetic – Albee is always tough on his characters. “A playwright is someone who lets his guts hang out onstage,” Albee said. Here, he acknowledged, he was referencing his tempestuous relationship with his mother.
There are, indeed, three tall women in this play, and a single, silent man. The nameless matriarch, Jan Meyer, is past 90, frail and losing ground mentally, with the emotional lability that sometimes comes post-stroke. Meyer’s performance is a powerhouse, a strong woman who sometimes knows she’s losing ground. Amy Loui is, in the first act, her caregiver, perhaps a nurse. Also in the first act is Sophia Brown playing a young attorney who’s making a home visit for this client.
In the second act, though, we see all three as the same woman, Meyer, now physically active but a little forgetful, Loui as her at age 52, and Brown as her at the age of 26. Brown, the young one, is at once curious about what life will bring her, yet unwilling to hear much of it, to the point of covering her ears. Even Loui, in the middle of her life, as she sees it, has questions for her older self. When the man enters, it’s almost a match to a gasoline can. It changes Loui’s attitude, almost her physical appearance, as she reacts to him.
This is superb ensemble work, agile timing in the first act, where more depends on lines than action, and full-bore physical and mental action in the second. All three women, even when they’re not speaking, are beautifully engaged. Director Wayne Salomon has pulled things together in a perfect tidy-yet-rough Albee-an package.
I could be happier with Carla Landis Evans’ costumes which range from absolutely perfect to one lavender number that’s almost a caricature. But the set from Patrick Huber is spot-on, cold luxury with crown moldings and creamy carpeting, nothing personal or softening about it, to reflect Albee’s growing-up years – because the young man is, he acknowledges, Albee himself.
It’s a terrific piece of theatre, perfect for a venue as intimate as this.
Three Tall Women
through October 9
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
360 N. Boyle