f "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" was the fiery masterpiece of Edward Albee's youth, "Three Tall Women" is certainly a masterpiece of his later years. And the current production at Palo Alto Players is fully worthy of that mastery.
Autumnal, rueful, reflective, the play is like an austere piece of chamber music, in which the silences are as pregnant as the notes, and every note must tell. And as directed by Mike Ward, in this production, every note does tell.
The setting is the elegant bedroom of an old-money home in the Northeast, and the three tall women are identified in the program only as A, B, and C. In Act I, A is a dying matriarch of 92. Slipping into and out of senility, she talks of the past as memories rise to the surface of her mind like bits of wreckage floating on a sea.
Ann Kuchins is magnificent in this role. Alternately nostalgic and angry, risible and bitter as she fondles fragments of her past, she is a woman of authority, pride, and dignity who must now accept help to the bathroom.
She is tended by B, a nurse/caregiver who is sympathetic, and responsive to her flickering moods. C, in Act I, is a representative of her law firm who is bored with the old lady's feebleness of mind and body.
In Act II, the three tall woman are the same woman at various stages of her life. C is twenty-six, B is fifty-two, and A is -- as I take it -- well into her seventies. C knows only what she has experienced by her young age, and wonders what the future will bring. As A and B tell her, unfurling some of the wretchedness that afflicts every human life, she recoils in disgust and denies that she will become them. But of course she will.
As B, Susan Jackson Collins conveys intelligent empathy as the caregiver in Act I, but it's as the bitter, cynical, disillusioned wife of Act II that she shines -- or, rather, smolders, especially when she works herself up in a blistering aria about her husband's infidelities and her own liaison of revenge. It's an intense performance.
Less intensity is demanded of Sonja Starkovich as C, because she is younger and less scarred. But as she recalls the dance when she first felt, pressed against her, her boyfriend's ardent longing, her performance is hardly less fine. Mark Gavartin has the wordless role of the son who has left home "with his life and one bag" because his mother would not accept or forgive his homosexuality.
Mike Ward has exercised both courage and sensitivity in his direction. Some courage was required to let the play move at the unhurried pace appropriate to it, and his sensitivity shows in the artful and tasteful modulation of the various performances. He's a young director, and his shaping of this production is a most impressive achievement.
The bedroom designed by Michael Palumbo is perfect -- beautiful and plush. His lighting, the spare sound design of Jonathan Davis, costumes of Cynthia Preciado, and the properties of Joan Sommerfield all make valuable contributions.
"Three Tall Women" looks at life with a clarity and honesty that are absolutely convincing and that held the audience rapt. This is a memorable production that will end too soon, and it should not be missed.
"Three Tall Women," by Edward Albee, is being presented by Palo Alto Players at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto through February 4. For information, call 329-0891.