An Unabashed Plug for Local Theatre

Yes, theatre. Get over yourselves, my American friends, that's how a good chunk of the world spells it. :)

Last night I went to the opening-night show of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, playing at the Kitchener-Waterloo Little Theatre. KWLT is an organization which has been running shows in this town since 1935, owning their own building for the last forty years or so. Despite half the building burning down in 2002, the company continued, raising money and running shows in other facilities while volunteers donated thousands of hours in rebuilding. It re-opened last September.

Now, full disclosure here: The director is my much-loved ex, the stage manager is a Russian student of mine, and I'm friends or acquainted with everyone else in the show. I'm also an officer of the company, serving as non-voting librarian to the board of directors, and a former President of the board there, over a ten-year span with the organization. So I've got very strong ties to this theatre and this cast.

That said, I can say without reservation that I really enjoyed and would recommend the show to anyone interested in women's stories. Albee's script was seen as something of a redemption for him, after criticisms that his early promise (as shown by the superb Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - which I've directed myself a few years ago!) had faded by the 80s. The script was awarded the 1994 Pulitzer for Drama, and continues Albee's interest in characters with rough edges, mixed fortunes, flaws. It is a painful look into Albee's own life, his own estrangement from his mother over his sexuality.

A quick summary of the story (NB: spoilers): A, a woman in her 90s, suffering from an apparent dementia of unknown origin, is attended regularly by B, a woman in her early 50s. When the play opens, A is in her bedroom with B and C. The latter is a 26-year-old representative of the law firm handling A's affairs, and has some business she keeps trying to get through. As the first act closes, A has a stroke, and the figurative curtain (KWLT is a small, black-box theatre, and has no proscenium arch, hence no curtain) comes down with B and C running to get help. The second act picks up with a mannequin of A lying motionless in bed, and shortly her son ("The Boy") comes in to sit with her, apparently grieving. A, B, and C are now all playing A at various times in her life - at 91, 52 and 26 respectively. The conversation turns odd at times, as A and B reminisce about things that haven't happened to C yet. The story of the estrangement of The Boy comes out in pieces through the second act: he has left home because of his mother's homophobia, and they are estranged for many years.

The first act rambles through A's life, anecdotes, tidbits, half-remembered moments, and Albee pulls no punches about the experience of being a 90-year-old woman. The three main actors (there's also a character who's a man, but who has no lines), all local community theatre veterans of varying experience, do a solid job of bringing the script to life.

A is querulous, afraid, spiteful and funny by turns, shifting from one to the other smoothly. She has lost height and weight, despite her assertions that she was tall and strong as a young woman. She's well-played by Aleriel Lear, despite the actor being a good sixty-plus years younger than the character. Lear gives us an A who is alternately snarkily funny and angrily suspicious to all around her: "They all steal!" she says, of servants and attendants. She (mostly) maintains the fiction of her age well, moving with the careful frailty of a woman with serious osteoporosis.

B is a bounteous woman, all curves and strength, an archetype of the mid-life professional caregiver: she humours all A's outrageous assertions, feeling A is a product of her time, and is too old to be worth arguing with. Kluckow brings a hearty and earthy version of the character, who's seen enough to be wiser than she was, and not enough to have become bitter about it.

A is by turns racist and homophobic, and seems to really not understand that she's doing anything wrong, giving us the usual "I've had a best friend who was $ETHNICITY", among other outrageous and awful comments. C, a woman of 26, is regularly shocked by these comments, and disagrees with B on a number of occasions about humouring A's fantasies and offensiveness. Polly Edwards gives us a businesslike C in the first act, uninterested in the old woman's games and rambles. C is the mirror to A: where A is afraid of dealing with the details of life, C is uninterested in A's reminiscences, and unwilling to approach A with the reverence A demands, continually trying to bring the conversation back to the business at hand. In the second act, though, she brings out not just the fear C has that she will become first B, then A, as her life goes on, but also the curiosity most of us have at that age: where will I be in 25 years, who will I be with, what will I be like?

The direction is well up to the usual high standard KWLT audiences have come to expect from Janelle Mifflin Starkey. Some of her previous shows have been seen as among the best to come out of KWLT in the last ten years: The Attic, the Pearls, and Three Fine Girls receiving the most accolades, another feminist/woman-focused show.

And in the end, that's how I'm justifying this post here. This is a definitely feminist production of a definitely woman-focused show, appearing in a small theatre in a smallish city - not where one would ordinarily find such work. The script speaks unapologetically and frankly about the sex lives of older women, about growing old, about infidelity and alienation.

The actors are tight, lines are appropriately jumped, and the characters are clear and well-defined. That's not to say the show is flawless. The physical differences between the three women are a bit of a strain to the suspension of disbelief; granted that this is hard to avoid, in community theatre, as one is constrained by the audition pool somewhat.

There were also several moments when Edwards' hair fell in her face, completely obscuring her features and leaving us without a face for the lines. Kluckow sometimes gets a little upstage in her facing, which tends to lose a couple of words despite her lovely husky voice, as well as obscuring her face. And Lear's voice varies somewhat in strength, perhaps a bit more than one would ordinarily encounter in an older woman. The set is simple and unchanging, although I must say the use of a slightly-larger bed would have allowed a better maintenance of the fiction of the mannequin. As it was, The Boy (Adam Cyr) was more or less sitting on the poor lady, and when C joined him briefly on the other side of the bed, the mannequin sort of disappeared.

If you live in southern Ontario, and can make it out to the show, I can unreservedly recommend you come see it. Besides being a good show, it's a woman-focused show in a mainstream theatre, and the best way to make sure there's more of that is to get bums in seats. So not only will you enjoy the show, you'll be swinging a shiny teaspoon while you do it.

It's running January 15 and 16, 21-23, and 28-30, at 8pm, at the Kitchener-Waterloo Little Theatre, 9 Princess Street East, Waterloo (first link to theatre web site; second link to location in Google Maps). Tickets are $10 for members, $15 for non-members, and can be reserved through e-mail or by phone (see website for information).

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