at Cafe Voltaire

Three Tall Women

Apollo Theater Center

In his preface to Judgement, British playwright Barry Col-lins cites Franz Kafka: “Only a party to a case can really judge, but, being a party, it cannot judge. Hence, there is no possibility of judgement in the world but only the glimmer of a possibility.” Audiences are used to judging the characters they see–or rather, they’re used to having the playwrights serve up a verdict. But Collins’s play and Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women defy such expectations. Their protagonists–gaunt, hollow-eyed, croaky-voiced, weakened by terrible circumstances of body and soul, yet indomitable and intimidating–come before us to explain themselves, not to seek our mercy.

A pair of exacting showcases for the actors’ technical and emotional resources, Judgement and Three Tall Women are studies in the will to survive, the capacity for endurance, and the imperative for change. Neither Vukhov, the Russian army officer who is Judgement’s sole character, nor A, the 92-year-old widow who stands over her own comatose body in Three Tall Women, would put himself or herself forward as a role model. When C, A’s 26-year-old alter ego, looks at the bedridden old woman she will be and asks in dismay, “How did I change? What happened to me?” A is more bemused than offended. And Vukhov says right up front that he’s guilty of cannibalism, the most hideous of taboo acts; he denies feeling shame, yet acknowledges his actions’ obscenity. By the end of both plays we recognize that we are the ones being judged: both our ability to understand others and, more to the point, our capacity for becoming like the people who disgust us.

Rarely done in America, Judgement is a tour de force for the right actor–and Larry Neumann Jr., one of the best and most idiosyncratic artists in off-Loop theater, is superb in the role created by Peter O’Toole in 1974. Vukhov, an army captain, is the survivor of a Nazi war atrocity–the imprisonment of seven soldiers in a Polish monastery cellar without food or clothes for two months.

Harrowing yet resolutely clinical, Vukhov’s account of the ordeal describes the grisly details of the prisoners’ strategy for survival: a suicide pact in which one man at a time (chosen by lots made from the hair on their heads) would offer himself as food for his comrades. The agreement was soon violated, of course: several soldiers had to be murdered, one man committed suicide (cutting his wrists with a tooth pulled from his head), and another–the only survivor besides Vukhov–went insane. But Vukhov did not–and that, as much as the cannibalism, is the “crime” for which he’s on trial (the program includes a ballot for viewers to mark “guilty” or “not guilty”). Far from unfeeling, Vukhov is quite emotional as he recalls the act of killing, butchering (with a sharpened thigh bone), and eating his friends–and, later, of caring for the helpless, mad cell mate he knew he might have to feed on. But with the same rigorous intelligence and objectivity that helped him stay sane, he refuses to play the victim.

Aided by the nearly claustrophobic intimacy of Cafe Voltaire’s dank basement space–where bare brick walls, chilly air, minimal lighting, and the soft sound of steadily dripping water make it all too easy

to envision the dungeon Vukhov describes–Neumann gives a performance of steely control; under Gary Zabinski’s direction, he is never less than superb and sometimes is unforgettably gripping, his ascetic thinness accentuated by a skull-like haircut and a hospital nightshirt and slippers. Neumann sticks with riveting focus to his all-important task: to make us understand him and his actions not by beating us over the head with how he feels but by articulating as precisely as possible what he did.

The wealthy, reactionary figure Albee names A in Three Tall Women has never eaten another human body; for her the cost of survival has been self-cannibalization. “What can you do?” she asks, explaining her bitterness to her younger counterparts, B and C. “There’s nothing you can do. You go on; you–eat into yourself. Starving people absorb their own bodies.” Starvation for A has been emotional: a lifetime of disillusion and betrayal–real and imagined–exacerbated and sometimes caused by her own selfishness and strength. Now she stands in her elegant blue bedroom–the most tasteful boudoir this side of Glenn Close’s in Reversal of Fortune–watching her long-absent son keep a deathwatch over her comatose body. It’s the same son who walked out on her some years ago, offended by her cutting tongue, her casual bigotry, her disapproval of his homosexuality, and her own sexual infidelity (with a stable hand whom she later had fired). C, A’s 26-year-old self, looks at the handsome son with love, but B, the 52-year-old version of A and C, regards him with hatred–for it is B that the son fought with so bitterly and abandoned so abruptly. A is glad to have him back, however, even though she isn’t sure that she actually loves him.

The young man is Edward Albee–sort of–and A, B, and C are all Frances Albee, the playwright’s adoptive mother. Sort of. Having scathingly satirized her as the archetypal castrating earth mother in his early plays–Mommy in The Sandbox and The American Dream, Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?–Albee now views the woman he loathed with dispassionate curiosity, and invites us to do the same in what he calls “as objective a play as I could [write] about a fictional character who resembled in every way, in every event, someone I had known very, very well.” To help achieve the distance he seeks, he’s divided his subject into three parts; in act one, B serves as A’s paid companion and C as A’s legal adviser, but in act two their dresses and jewelry confirm that they are all the same woman. Except they aren’t, which is Albee’s point. Despite similar characteristics–the imposing stature, the deep throaty voice, the barking laugh–physically and emotionally A is not at all the young woman she was, or even the middle-aged person she was.

A testament to his mother’s longevity as well as a bemused, slightly smug critique of her flaws, Albee’s play communicates universal concerns–our concern for our aging parents, our fear of our own aging, our anxiety about living the lives we’ve hoped for–in a series of sometimes nostalgic, sometimes acidly witty, sometimes raunchy anecdotes. Along the way he’s created a dynamic central character in the mercurial A–brittle and tough, self-absorbed and sardonically self-critical, self-pitying and fiercely independent, vainly acquisitive and wisely removed from worldly cares. The happiest moment in life, she concludes, is “coming to the end of it….None of that ‘further shore’ nonsense, but to the point where you can think about yourself in the third person without being crazy.”

Nan Martin, a 45-year veteran of Broadway and regional theater, brings this feisty, difficult, unapologetic creature to vivid life–offering the kind of performance that, like Neumann’s in Judgement, reaffirms the power, the electricity, the liveness of theater. If the highly competent Kathleen Butler as B and Tracy Sallows as C don’t register with the same impact, that’s partly because their roles are written in less depth–but also because Lawrence Sacharow, Albee’s longtime colleague, has directed the three women with more attention to their individual dramatic beats than to their interactions. Perhaps after months of playing the roles together at Houston’s Alley Theatre, the trio have grown too comfortable; or perhaps they were holding back in anticipation of a second show a couple of hours later. In any case, Three Tall Women is one interesting script and Martin’s is one magnificent performance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Carol Rosegg.