Encore Michigan

Slipstream’s ‘Three Tall Women’ explores dark reality of Edward Albee’s late masterpiece

Review January 07, 2019 Tanya Gazdik

FERNDALE, Mich. — Youth is wasted on the young. That quote from another playwright, George Bernard Shaw, could be the subtitle of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women.

Indeed, it takes lying on her literal deathbed for the play’s matriarch to even begin to come to terms with the twists and turns her life has taken. Bailey Boudreau directs the production.

During the first act, the 92-year-old character — or is she 91? She seems to be set on shaving a year off off her age — recounts parts of her life story to her 52-year-old nursemaid and 26-year-old lawyer’s assistant. In some ways, they are both versions of herself when she was their age, although it’s hard to believe this witty and wise drone was ever the naive and idealistic youngest character.

The oldest woman, referred to as simply “Character A” in the program, is played by the outstanding Maggie Gilkes. She lapses in and out of lucidity. At times, she behaves more like a crying and temper-tantrum prone toddler than an elderly upper-class lady. It’s sometimes difficult to watch, especially if you’ve ever been a caretaker or even just spent time with an elderly relative or friend. Sometimes she is acutely aware of the lapses and they are as frustrating for her as the bystanders.

It’s mostly the youngest character, or “Character C” played by Maggie Alger, who gets frustrated and petty. She doesn’t have the life experience to know that it’s best to pick one’s battles with an elderly person, which is clearly the middle-aged character, or the strategy of “Character B”.

The second act features all three women as the matriarch at different ages. They recount their life’s journey to each other, and in some cases challenge the assessments as being inaccurate or incomplete. The youngest character spends much of the act being brought down to size as she begins to realize that her life may not take the perfect path she imagines.

Alger’s character shares more of herself in the second act and appears to be more vulnerable and less of a know-it-all, which increases her likability. The shift gives Alger the opportunity to show more of a range of emotion than she conveys in the first act.

Jeannine Thompson skillfully portrays Character B, who shows the most dimensions of character in both of the acts. Perhaps it’s because she old enough to know better but young enough to still have hopes and some vanity. The play opens with her looking at herself wistfully in the mirror, perhaps thinking about her younger days but still taking pride in what she sees and offers to the world.

The first act is in the back of the house at Slipstream. The thoughtful set, designed by Jackson Abohasira, legitimately feels like an elderly person’s bedroom, for better or for worse. I’ve known several elderly women with stuffed animals on their beds, so that was a nice touch (plus it gives Character A something to throw when she’s agitated, which happens several times.)

The set for the second act, which opens just after character A has a stroke, is more of a dreamscape or actualization of Character A’s unconscious mind. Moving to the theater company’s side stage, the set captures what it would look like if we could go inside of our mind. It is painted a monochrome blue and strewn with wide swaths or an organza-like sheer fabric. The centerpiece is a mannequin in a white gown which is meant to represent the dying body of Character A.

Costumes are designed by Tiaja Sabrie and the second act’s long dresses are dramatic and striking. They are shown in three shades of blue, perhaps to recognize the progression of age in the three characters. The youngest is in a darker shade of blue, while Character A is in pale blue. Character B’s dress is a combination of the two. It’s a subtle statement that helps convey that we are now observing parts of the same person.

The play generates much food for post-show contemplation. Are we living the lives we want to live? Will we have regrets looking back? If you could go back and change it all, would you? These are all worthy questions explored by this excellent production.