Barksdale's "Three Tall Women" highlights the work of three great actresses. 

Height with Depth

"Three Tall Women"
Barksdale Theatre
Through April 17
$17.50 - $23.50

If you've ever seen "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" you know that playwright Edward Albee doesn't exactly have a happy-go-lucky outlook on life. His characters can be petty, angry, mean-spirited and deeply flawed. But such characters provide the raw material for actors to do some dazzling things. The actresses of "Three Tall Women," currently playing at the Barksdale Theatre, take Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning play and make something magnificent: a wrenching, wryly witty explication of a woman's life.

Part of the play's power lies in its magical realism: Its world is timeless, often dreamlike. In the first act, a wealthy and progressively senile widow (Mary Sue Carroll), dominates the stage, alternately terrorizing and charming her caretaker (Yvonne Erickson) and a young lawyer (Katie McCall) sent to take over the old woman's financial affairs. In the more surreal second act, the three characters merge into one, with each actress portraying the old woman at different ages. Much of the play's humor stems from the bickering between the characters, showing the old woman essentially battling with herself. These scenes are also the most insightful, capturing the internal tension we can feel when we try to reconcile our conflicting images of ourselves.

The first act belongs to Carroll. Transformed into a 92-year-old thanks to a masterful makeup job, Carroll skillfully delivers the old woman's fascinating, fractured monologues, ricocheting wildly from one emotion to another. The actress uses her leathery voice to convey a lifetime of pride, pain and impudence. In the second act, the younger performers get a chance to shine. McCall is radiant as the woman at 26, still hopeful and innocent, defiantly vowing not to grow into what she will become. This confident beauty plays her character with a brazen edginess that foreshadows the woman to come. Erickson expertly captures the growing dichotomy of the woman at 52, projecting a calm acceptance of her life's disappointments. Still, the appearance of her son (Jason Sawyer) unleashes an animal fury in her, and you see that her nonchalance has come at a high cost.

Strawderman stages "Women" with focus and assurance, using sound and light to enhance the play's dreamlike qualities. He demonstrates his abilities from the moment the play begins: A breathy chant rises in volume then abruptly stops when spotlights illuminate the three actresses. Though the pace slips a bit as the overly long play moves into its third hour, Strawderman wraps everything up with a crisp and distinct final scene, bringing the evening to a satisfying conclusion.

The play does have some problems. A repeated mention of fellatio seems incongruous as well as gratuitous. Even with all of its ruminations about death, the play never gets around to providing the details of two prominent deaths, those of the old woman's mother and her sister.

But these quibbles are minor when measured against the power of the performances. In effectively realizing Albee's forceful vision, Barksdale's "Women" stand


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