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Three Tall Women

The life stages of one woman, brought powerfully to life by three

Photo: Ken Stanek, License: N/A

Ken Stanek

Helenmary Ball, Cherie Weinert, and Catharine Shoemaker

Three Tall Women

By Edward Albee

At Fells Point Corner Theatre through Oct. 16

Not much happens in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women. The set never changes from the tidy, wood-framed bedroom of the 91-year-old woman identified simply as A (Helenmary Ball). There's no music. Lighting is stark and simple, occasionally dimming to red for a change of mood. The farthest anyone moves is from the bed to the bathroom and back again.

And yet a lifetime happens in the two-hour course of Women. A opens the play by asserting her age: "I'm 91." She's talking to B (Cherie Weinert), the 52-year-old woman serving as her caretaker, and C (Kate Shoemaker), a 26-year-old representative of the law firm struggling to sort A's finances. C insists that A is 92, based on her records; A maintains that she knows how old she is; B tells C to be nice.

Thus, instantly, the audience knows each of these women: her attitude, her tendencies, her current lot in life. C, dressed fashionably with a slicked-back ponytail, has little patience for the old woman and the trouble she's causing with her money. B is kind and motherly, and accustomed to A's antics. But A is most fascinating to watch, perhaps because of the novelty of a 91(2?)-year-old leading lady. While Weinert and Shoemaker are strong, the first act is clearly Ball's show. She hobbles from the bed to the bathroom to the chair and around again, recounting men and homes and lives past, slipping seamlessly from sharp to mean to sobbing. Haunting her tales is a son, estranged indefinitely and for reasons unclear but alluded to through much of the show.

Ball makes A easy to fall for, her youthful passion shining through despite it now being confined to a frail body in a pink nightgown; when she struggles to remember important moments from her youth, it's tragically frustrating. It's almost magical, then, when the second half begins and A re-emerges in a classy black dress glittering at the shoulders, pearls at her neck and diamonds on her wrists.

In fact, all three women have changed, each wearing an age-appropriate black dress and shoes, C without the bracelets gracing both A's and B's wrists. And now we see them as they really are: not three separate women, but the same woman split into three, the same woman at 26, 52, and 91 (or 2). C asks sometimes heartbreaking questions about where her future will take her, determined not to make what she sees as the poor decisions A and B did. The second half is a play unto itself, each woman becoming at once a fully independent entity and a part of a bigger, sadder whole. Ball handles the more youthful A with the grace of an aging debutant; Shoemaker embodies both the na?ve hope and brash ignorance of youth. She badgers A and B for details about her husband, a man they never seemed to love, and the son they somehow cast out, until B erupts in a monologue so passionately honest that the theater seems to melt away, and her voice catches in her throat in such a way that you feel you're watching your own mother as she rips the years behind her into pieces on the floor.

This is not an uplifting night. Watching three women as they hammer away at the endless forward march of time toward aging and death, reminding you that nothing, good or bad, stays the same and that who you are is transient is such a downer that it's amazing it can be called entertaining, but it can. Much of this, of course, is due to Albee's expert writing, but his words come to life because the simple set and lighting meet a well-chosen and expertly directed cast.

In a play with one set, three characters (Young Man - the non-vocal son - doesn't really count, with apologies to Steven Olaguer), and essentially no plot, casting is everything. Here you have three women who must react so strongly to each other emotionally that we can believe they are in fact one and the same, and it works. It's easy to imagine Ball, Weinert, and Shoemaker sitting down for a beer at one of the many bars around the corner from FPCT after a rehearsal, laughing and recounting tales of life and love much as they do onstage. They're so coolly comfortable with each other that it's almost like watching a mother, daughter, and granddaughter put on a play together, and that chemistry makes for an experience that is both moving and bittersweet.

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