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Life in three dimensions

The life of a 92-year old woman seen at three different stages — ELIZABETH ROY reviews ``Three Tall Women," an adaptation of Edward Albee's play.



"Breathe In, Breathe Out" ... technically excellent. — Pic. by R. Ragu.

``THREE TALL Women" is a journey of discovery into the mind and memories of a dying woman. It's about ways of perceiving the process of growing old. There may be degeneration at the physical level, but at the mental level you are often, for the first time, `mindful' of what you are doing and thinking even as you are doing them. There is ultimate happiness in being able to step out of you and see yourself be.

It is about life and change and death and their interlinks with the choices that people make or do not make. The play is Edward Albee's 1991 (and the third) Pulitzer Prize winner, and revolves round characters whom he simply identifies as A, B and C. The first act fades in on the sumptuous bedroom of 92-year old A, who has learned to deal with incontinence, a painful and useless arm and a memory that plays games with the mind. She is oppressive, imperious, rich — a vicious old wretch who gradually wins our affection.

B, 52 years old, is an almost compassionate care-giver, a paid companion. C, a 26 year old attorney and a humourless liberal, is trying to straighten out A's financial affairs. A rambles on and reminisces; she is demanding and unreasonable between lapses of memory. B is understanding and responsive. C is impatient and ungracious. A is helped on to her four-poster bed and moments later suffers a stroke. End of Act 1.

Before we let Act 2 swing into view, it's interesting to listen to Albee, "I know I decided to write a two-act play, and I finished Act One and one of my characters had a stroke and wouldn't be able to talk. I must have had that planned all along, but I hadn't told myself... " That brought in the bifurcated structure.

A stylised second act has A comatose and on life support system upstage a visitor, her estranged son sitting by her silent to the end of the play. A, B and C take the stage, as the same "tall woman", at different stages of her life; at 92, 52 and 26. The three women fuse into A seen through three distinct periods of her life fragments of a single self in counterpoint. Together they evoke and help understand the life of a difficult woman with a short, wealthy, one-eyed husband and a gay son she kicks out of her house.

The three ages speak to each other in real time. The collective A begins to comprehend the accident of who she is. Taking a deep breath she allows the action and her life to stop.

The play is blatantly autobiographical except for the fact that Albee was adopted when he was a child and it is an attempt to find answers to why his mother was so difficult and so embittered. In Act 1 he sees her from the outside, in Act 2 he understands her from the inside.

Ten years ago the Artists Repertory Theatre came down with their production of ``Three Tall Women." Last week, Round Table No. 1 brought down the Prime Theatre Company's production, directed by Lillete Dubey. Dubey adapted it and titled it ``Breathe In, Breathe Out."

Technically the production was excellent. The sets had Dubey's signature inputs across it. The first half had some good looking antique pieces evoking a once upon a time lavish household, with no new generation, making changes. The death scene in the second act was a complete changeover, though very Dubeyistic. The bed and two swings, all white hung on ropes coming down from the ceiling. Lengths of white fabric and some rather delicate structures and almost gossamer costumes helped accept the splintered time scale and complexity of the collective self. The music was good and so was the lighting design.

Lillete Dubey played A. The adaptation presented her as a stereotypical 92-year old woman we can encounter anywhere in India. Dependent, living alone but with wealth and pluck backing her life (not very tradition bound in an Indian sense).

Shernaz Patel as B was superb and brought much to the role she played in both acts. Suchitra Pillai as C had a comparatively less meaty and as a result more difficult role to play. She remained a tad too stiff and distant.

Albee goes beyond the need to be adapted and it was good that except for the few hooks here and there where Dubey hung local touches, she left the play alone, particularly in the second act. The production did manage to communicate the point of A's life and death, the ordinary becoming the extraordinary because of the focus and the analysis.

The play raised funds for Madras Round Table No. 1, for their destitute children's home and school at Pallipattu. Veneta Cucine, Citibank and Hotel Park Sheraton lent support with their sponsorship.

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