There is something ennobling about really great acting. Adequate acting is the assumption of a disguise, but great acting illuminates how the raw stuff of humanity can be made ugly or beautiful, saintly or demonic. It may, if an actor desires, invite sympathy for a creature whose course through life has twisted or deformed its spirit into otherwise incomprehensible shapes. Great acting may make us like the unlikable or even love the unlovable.
Beth Dixon accomplishes this very thing in Three Tall Women, a play in which then-62-year-old playwright Edward Albee sought to understand the woman who raised him. Albee's mother was a bitter, capricious woman who cast him out of her life on account of his homosexuality and who reluctantly invited him back for her dying years. She had no one else to turn to then, and she never let him forget he was a friend of last resort.
Three Tall Women begins and ends in the bedroom of a character called "A" (Dixon), a rich old woman suffering from dementia. She is tended to by "B" (Angie Radosh), a woman in her 50s with little time for bullshit but endless patience for life's awkward vagaries. She treats A with unsentimental compassion and an unsmiling, matter-of-fact kindness. Radosh wears a hard-won knowledge on her face — a knowledge that life is messy and that its trials are more easily dispatched with humor and stoicism than pieties or angst.
Also in the room is "C" (Geneve Rae). She is 26 and perhaps even stupider about aging and death than can be explained by her relatively few years. Albee's generally unflattering view of women may have something to do with C's naiveté. In the first act, she has been sent to A's home by her employer, the law firm that handles A's affairs. The old woman is in arrears with her bills, and C has come to collect.
It won't be easy, and C isn't about to make it any easier. Like many senile people, A is prone to digressions — she finds a fleeting peace in recounting bygone moments — and C doesn't conceal the disdain she feels for A's ceaseless mental escapes. She mocks the old woman in subtle ways that she may believe to be clever, but even her slickest verbiage cannot match the smarts that B summons with a single, sure hand, batting C's barbs from the air. "What did she say?" asks A, vaguely aware she's been crossed. "She didn't say anything," be says B, waving it away — and it is C's job to realize that B is right. She hasn't said anything.
A suffers a stroke before C has a chance to collect her money, and that's it for act one. In act two, the three actresses re-emerge, resplendent in classical evening dresses that drew approving coos from the matinee crowd. A, B, and C are no longer distinct individuals. Now they are all versions of A, captured at different moments in her long life.
B and C are barely touched by this transformation. They are what they have been — a middle-aged woman and a girl, one effortlessly sly as the other plays at sophistication. A, however, is entirely different. With her real-life body (represented by a mannequin) hooked up to a respirator on the bed, she is free from the enfeeblement of old age. She can say and remember what she will.
With Dixon in the role, this is an almost godlike power. In act one, she played a perfect composite of every once-strong woman struggling in the world through a swamp of failing gray matter. Now, her confusion has given way to clarity, and she knows better than either of her companions just who and what she is.
Viewing her earlier incarnations, A casts judgments with a squint or with a twitch of her dainty nose. Her judgments are offhand, but they are terminal. "You're both babies," she says in such a way that communicates her lack of patience and her incredulity that the two younger women aren't out of patience with themselves. All of the loving, the hoping, the striving, and the hating of life is beyond her, and she is comfortable with its futility. The younger ladies appraise her with curiosity and, in C's case, horror. A is a crystal ball in whose depths swims everything but peace.
Playing C, Rae has the most difficult part in Three Tall Women, and that's too bad. Younger actors are generally incapable of shouldering Albee-sized burdens, and Rae is no exception. C will become B, and B will become A: bitter, wary, and friendless, lacking charity even for her own gay son. This would be too much for most actresses to impute, and Rae solves the problem with an inelegant reversal. While C should wear a superficial sweetness over a hard inner core, Rae is simply too green, and she seems like a sweet young girl playing at bitterness.
There is a chance that Rae's difficulties have less to do with her age than with a fundamental mistake Albee has made about human nature. Toward the end of the play, the three tall women discuss what they believe to be the happiest times of their lives. C is terrified it's passed her by already — what other conclusion can she draw from her cynical elders? — and B is convinced that she's only just reached it. She knows life's limitations and is too smart to worry about them. A thinks both women are daft. She is happy to have reached the end of her run, and her happiness lies in imminent oblivion. Beth Dixon's gift to this bleak, lovely play is that she's not quite believable when she says so. In her intelligent eyes, I saw the soul of a woman who had spent 90 years getting wise enough to make such certain proclamations. She is too viciously alive to stop now.