If you're going to build a three-legged stool, you best know what you're about. Because if one of those legs is shorter than the others and another a bit loose at the joint, you're going to have problems with balance.
That is the challenge that the renowned playwright Edward Albee presents to any theater company that takes on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Three Tall Women. It's an inventively imagined but daunting piece of theater, and you require three talented actors plus a wise director to bring it off in proper style. In this iteration at convergence-continuum, the guts of the play are delivered, but the production never quite takes flight due to some performance and directorial wrinkles.
Although the title references three women, it really all revolves around one, a woman given the cryptic identity of "A." In the first act, she is a wealthy, borderline senile 92-year-old who is clearly about to tip over for the final time. She is attended by "B," a middle-aged caretaker hired to watch over the old crone and "C," a young law firm paper shuffler who is there to straighten out issues with A's estate.
It has been speculated that A is really a stand-in for Albee's mother, who rejected him after he came out as gay. Whether that back story is true or not, it's clear Albee has some serious issues with this harridan as she delaminates before out eyes in Act One—weeping in self pity, lashing out at her menials, and cackling at her ability to make life unpleasant for them. She is delighted at one point to drop a glass that shatters in the bathroom sink so that B will have to clean it up. But then she expects B to attend to her every whimper with gentleness.
Like most paid caretakers, B has seen it all, and Teresa McDonough conveys the wry, weary reality of the situation. While A whines and harangues, McDonough's B merely nods and helps A toddle to the bathroom one more time. As C, Sarah Kunchik shows some of the disgust as she encounters A's slightly out of control bodily functions and the old woman's snarly prejudices. But Kunchik adopts a consistent smirk that never allows C to completely register as a shocked newcomer to this unpleasant environment.
In the demanding role of A, the superb actor Lucy Bredeson-Smith hits all the right notes, convincingly portraying this decrepit woman who, teetering on the brink of death, is so confused by her memories and where they have brought her. Unfortunately, those well-struck notes don't often coalesce into a compelling melody, since there is less risk-taking and dark humor than there should be in A's tirades and skeins of fractured memories. This A is more a pathetic old coot rather than a woman annealed by fate into a monster. And the black laughter that should be generated must then be caught up short at when A suffers a stroke at the end of the act.
As directed by Tom Kondilas, this half of the play is performed more as a sad documentary about an unpleasant home nursing experience rather than as a florid war being waged against death and the dying of the light. This is important because it is all prelude to Act Two, where things change dramatically.
After the intermission, the same actors return, but this time each is playing A at different stages of her life. Kunchik is now A at age 26, McDonough is 52-year-old A, and Bredeson-Smith is a bit more capable A, around age 75. This structure is a brilliant gambit by Albee, as long as the ground has been prepared for this final internal face-off. But since the first act often falters, with many monologues delivered without the clarity of sharp turns and wicked asides, there is less to resolve in Act Two.
In this second stanza, McDonough holds firm in the center, playing the middle-aged A with resignation, chatting cynically about her short husband (nicknamed "the penguin") who provided her with jewelry but little else. And Bredeson-Smith is more effective here, bemused at her former selves who have no idea how they turned into her at this advanced age. But director Kondilas doesn't help Kunchik find the sweet spot of the young A, the bubbly and optimistic girl who sees her sexy and impulsive early life as simply a prologue to increasing happiness in the future.
Without that contrast, Albee's panoramic vision of life with all its potentials and disappointments is narrowed. And the crushing truth that the two older versions of A can provide lands with less impact.
That said, Albee is a glorious wordsmith and his central conceit is alive and well in this slightly unbalanced production. That is: None of us is able to imagine who we will become as age and experience shape us on the ever-spinning unmerciful lathe of life.
Three Tall WomenThrough June 11, Produced by Convergence-Continuum at the Liminis
2438 Scranton Road, Tremont, 216-687-0074