An old woman, declining toward death, reflects on the pains, pleasures, losses, and surprises that have shaped her life and her character. It's a simple enough premise, but Edward Albee, that old master of memory, invention, and self-presentation, builds on it to create "Three Tall Women," a complex, discomfiting, and almost painfully fascinating multiple portrait.
To say much more about the plot, or even the structure, would unravel the finely stitched construction that gives the story both its shape and much of its resonance. So let's just say that this play, which won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for drama, is as tricky in its storytelling as it is in its deceptively straightforward title, and leave it at that.
What we can say more about is the vital, elegant, and exciting production that Spiro Veloudos has staged at the Lyric Stage Company. First of all, to play the women named in the script only as A, B, and C, he has cast three subtle and powerful actresses: the virtuosic Trinity Repertory Company member Anne Scurria, local dynamo Paula Plum, and rising star Liz Hayes, respectively.
In a single, silk-lined room - the suffocatingly tasteful bedroom of A, the dying woman, designed with WASPish attention to detail by Cristina Todesco (one regrets only the too-bright, machine-made Oriental carpet where a faded relic should be) - the three women, guided by Veloudos, move inexorably deeper into the unpleasant yet mesmerizing truths of their characters. We cannot love these women, but we can't stop watching them, either.
That's clearly as Albee wishes it to be, for he has said that "Three Tall Women," his most overtly autobiographical play, was inspired by the cruel, cold, and weirdly alluring character of his adoptive mother. If those adjectives make his evocation of her sound more reptilian than maternal, you're starting to get the idea.
You may also be getting the idea that spending two hours with that sort of creature is not exactly fun. Yes, A, B, and C are often quite funny, each in her own way: young C with an oblivious self-absorption that's achingly amusing to behold, A with the acerbic and unapologetic directness of an old woman who knows she's right even when she can't quite remember what she's saying, and B poised on the razor's edge of midlife clarity between them. But, pointed and provocative as their conversations often are, they are never merely witty - there's too much poison in the fangs for that.
Albee's women would be unbearable if they didn't inspire actresses to explore every nasty nuance with finesse and skill. With Scurria, Plum, and Hayes, fortunately, we're in expert hands. Each finds her own way to pull us inside her character, never letting us feel comfortably at home there and yet never making us wish we could leave, either.
Separately and together, these three women are simply wonderful to watch. Just see Scurria scrunch up her face and work her jaw, as if chewing on a vanishing memory to bring back its savor. Or listen to Plum wring every shade of weary amusement and bitter glee out of B's mocking voice, while Hayes works the narrower but no less challenging territory of youthful self-delusion.
Albee is famously reluctant to say what his plays are about. "About two hours," he's been known to reply when pressed. "Three Tall Women," in part because of its trickiness but also because of its range and delicacy, is even less susceptible than his other work to reductive description; you could say it's about life, death, memory, meaning, love, hate, and how we become the people we are, but that's at once too big and too small an answer.
What you can say, though, is this: The Lyric's "Three Tall Women" is about as fine a realization of this challenging, caustic play as you can imagine.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.