Minds of Darkness

Many playwrights draw from their personal experiences, but Edward Albee appears downright obsessed by his. The veteran, venerable playwright returns again and again to familiar subjects: dysfunctional family dynamics and the inescapable isolation of human beings from one another. Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, Tiny Alice, The Play About The Baby, they all seem to orbit and echo his upbringing as the alienated stepchild of cold, upper-class stepparents. In his plays, married couples do everything to each other and hardly anything with one another. Children are abandoned or estranged or completely denied. Anger and bitterness are primary emotions. That's certainly the world of Three Tall Women, a grim, unflinching look at aging, estrangement, and isolation that won Albee the Pulitzer Prize back in 1994. The play is receiving a sturdy if not stellar production from the Public Theatre of South Florida, a veteran theater company that knows a thing or two about isolation and estrangement itself.

Albee's story is set in the bedroom of an elderly woman, whose name is never revealed (Albee just calls her "A"). The entire first act is essentially a character study of this tall, frail person who suffers from a wandering mind. A's a crotchety, demanding woman, who orders around two other tall women: Her patient, patronizing middle-age health worker, B; and a young law clerk, C, who is trying to sort out A's paperwork. A rambles on about her life, leaping from one sprig of memory to the next, oftentimes leaving the others confused as to what she's talking about. Her arm in a sling from a fall, A worries about falling again, about incontinence, forgetfulness, about being left alone. Easing into a chair is a major battle; getting through the day is a war.

As she talks, shards and splinters of her life begin to form patterns. She married unhappily into wealth, but when her husband cheated on her, she responded in kind. Long a widow, A has a son, even longer estranged from her. But as A's character begins to be revealed, she is suddenly felled with a stroke.

In act two Albee takes a radical shift in his narrative. The three actresses now play the same woman at separate stages of her life. C, the youngest, looks forward to finding love and happiness. But middle-age B tells her that two years hence she will encounter her short, rich husband-to-be and her marriage will not turn out as C is certain it will. And A tells B of even more heartaches yet to come. All three look on as the long-estranged son at last returns to the bedside of the stroke-ravaged woman now lying unconscious.

Albee has always had a knack for such conceits, using theatricality to underscore his ideas. His acerbic wit and acute observations are as sharp, his ideas as thought-provoking as ever. If playwrights were categorized in religious terms, Albee would surely be a Calvinist. His view of humanity is deeply pessimistic; the possibility of human transcendence and improvement is his idea of a good joke. But this bracing intellectualism isn't balanced by any sensuality. As a result, Three Tall Women is an important, substantial play but it's not very much fun. It's like broccoli or spinach: One takes in an Albee play because it's nutritious, not because it's tasty.

Director Ellen Davis offers a similar take with her spare, restrained production. Her staging ably supports the text and there's a sober, earnest feel to the proceedings that is certainly in keeping with the material. Davis isn't helped particularly by her design elements. Veteran set designer "Uncle" Chuck Gillette has conjured up a detailed bedroom, replete with watery patterned wallpaper and gauzy swagging, while Meredith Lasher's costumes, a series of floral print dresses, are similarly realistic. All of this is proper but rather staid, when perhaps bolder conceptual choices might have been in order. While this play appears to be a realistic narrative, it certainly warps into something else, but you'd never know it from the look of this production.

Davis's cast fares reasonably well with exceptionally difficult roles. Albee's characters are often an actor's nightmare, with little detail or obvious dramatic intentions apparent in his writing. As a result actors must rely on their own resources, and those with the most experience tend to fare best. That's the case here, as Marjorie O'Neill-Butler as A offers the most detailed work, especially in the first half of the show. Christy Antonio as B tends to declaim in actory speeches at times, and Randi Bird as C sometimes falls into generalized behavior, but both improve in the second half, where they have more specific emotions to work with.

These minor weaknesses aside, Three Tall Women is a well-produced, articulate production, certainly worth catching before its short run ends.

The same can be said of the Public Theatre itself. This enduring company, now celebrating its fifteenth-anniversary season, is eyeballing disaster. Without a permanent home for several seasons, David Jay Bernstein's troupe has been in residence at the Fort Lauderdale Children's Theatre for the past two years. But after the Public produces its final three shows of this season, that arrangement must end and Bernstein does not have anywhere to go. This shortage of adequate performance space, which is shared by several companies in the region, is yet another aspect of a looming crisis in the performing arts throughout the state of Florida. The economic downturn, the reduction of corporate and foundation underwriting, the drop in tourism, the depressive effects of terrorism and war combined with impending cuts in -- and possible complete elimination of -- state funding of the arts, all point toward dark days ahead. In view of this, perhaps Albee's gloomy voice is the right tone for these times.