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Three Tall Women
by Edward Albee
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 23, 2016

Sophia Brown, Jan Meyer, Amy Loui Photo by Patrick Huber St. Louis Actors' Studio

Sophia Brown, Jan Meyer, Amy Loui
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Edward Albee is unquestionably one of the greatest playwrights of the last 100 years. That St. Louis Actors’ Studio opened its long-planned production of Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Three Tall Women one week after the playwright’s death was a coincidence. Still, such an excellent, superbly cast production of this intensely personal play couldn’t be a more fitting tribute to this celebrated artist.

Three Tall Women is the title of this play that takes much of its inspiration from Albee’s own life, and especially that of his mother, and despite the title it’s essentially about one woman. The three women of title are only identified as A (Jan Meyer), B (Amy Loui), and C (Sophia Brown), although the central figure is A. The construction of this play is difficult to describe without some degree of spoiling, so let that be a warning. Essentially, this is an examination of one woman’s life at different ages, looking back in retrospective in the first act as elderly A is cared for by her middle-aged caretaker B, and visited by C, a young representative from her lawyer who has trouble dealing with A’s difficult personality. This is all somewhat straightforward until Act 2, when everything changes dramatically and the play suddenly enters the realm of fantasy and A, B, and C all become representatives of the same woman at different ages, all looking at life from their limited perspectives and informing one another of what happens in “their” life. There’s also the somewhat shadowy figure of “The Boy” (Michael Perkins), who appears onstage but doesn’t say anything, although A, B, and C comment on his presence and his relationship to “them”, his elderly mother.  It’s a very talky, philosophical play that delves deeply into the motivations of this woman and her relationships with her son and with her late husband, as well as looking at the different generations of women and how they relate to one another and how they reconcile their own life decisions within themselves.

The casting here is excellent. Meyer, as A, is able to project a simultaneous sense of stubbornness and vulnerability. A is not a particularly likable character, but Meyer embodies her humanity. Loui, as B, portrays the patient caretaker in Act 1 and the middle-aged version of A in Act 2 with assured strength, as well, and Brown plays the suspicious C in Act 1 and the cautiously optimistic C (young A) in Act 2 with convincing conviction. The interplay between these three characters is the essence of the play, from the literal generation gap in Act 1 to the more figurative one in Act 2, and it’s fascinating to watch these three top-notch performers as they spar and confide and conceal and reveal. Perkins is fine as The Boy, doing the somewhat daunting job of sitting there on stage as a focal point for the discussion that his character isn’t really able to hear. The key to the play, though, is the performances of Meyer, Loui, and Brown, and they are all entirely convincing.

Patrick Huber’s static set is meticulously appointed, suggesting the upper class New York apartment of the wealthy, aging central character. Carla Landis Evans’s costumes are ideally appropriate, as well, from the accurate early 1990’s attire of Act 1 to the differently colored and styled glamorous evening gowns of Act 2. There’s also strong atmospheric lighting by Huber and clear sound by director Wayne Salomon. The fantastical aspects of the play are more achieved by the overall staging and tone than by any special effects, however. The excellent technical aspects simply provide the setting for Albee’s well-crafted words, Salomon’s lucid staging, and the first-rate performances of the leads.

Albee’s look at aging, marriage, and family relationships is crisp and cynical, although there is a glimpse of some kind of positive message toward the end. Ultimately, this is a character study, and a richly drawn one at that. The unusual construction only serves to further illuminate Albee’s difficult, complex central character, who is apparently based on his own mother. At STLAS, the play has been impeccably cast and staged. It’s an ideal tribute to a legendary American playwright.

Amy Loui, Jan Meyer, Sophia Brown Photo by Patrick Huber St. Louis Actors' Studio

Amy Loui, Jan Meyer, Sophia Brown
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Three Tall Women is being presented by St. Louis Actors’ Studio at the Gaslight Theatre until October 9, 2016.

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
by Edward Albee
Directed by John Contini
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
February 20, 2015

Betsy Bowman, William Roth, Michael Amoroso, Kari Ely Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Betsy Bowman, William Roth, Michael Amoroso, Kari Ely
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an American theatre classic that I had never actually seen on stage before. I have to admit now that I’m feeling much more like a theatre geek than a critic writing this review, because ever since I heard that St. Louis Actors’ Studio, one of St. Louis’s better small theatre companies, was going to be producing this show, I’ve been looking forward to seeing it. I didn’t get to see it opening weekend because I was out of town, although when I finally did get over to the Gaslight Theatre to catch this production, I discovered it was well worth the anticipation.  With strong, dynamic staging and a top-notch cast of veteran St. Louis performers, this is a production worthy of the play’s illustrious reputation.

This is a brutal play to watch, no question.  It delves into the lives and emotions of its four characters with deft precision, baring all the raw emotions and challenging the preconceived notions and perceptions of its characters.  Set in a university town, professor George (William Roth) and his brassy wife, the university president’s daughter Martha (Kari Ely), start out with seemingly good-natured bickering as they discuss a party they attended earlier that evening. Eventually, Martha announces that guests will soon be arriving–a new young professor, Nick (Michael Amoroso) and his wife, Honey (Betsy Bowman).  When the younger couple eventually arrives, the evening starts with a semblance of politeness but then gradually descends into chaos, madness and despair as George and Martha take turns challenging and berating their guests and one another, and ultimately deeply held secrets are revealed and the characters’ motives and natures are explored.

This play explores the emotions and lives of its characters with precision. There’s a lot of sharp, biting comedy as well as gut-wrenching drama. This is a well-known, oft-performed play for a reason. It deals with universal issues of hope, failure, expectations and regrets, and it provides an ideal opportunity for actors to explore a full range of emotion. As staged at STLAS by director John Contini with dynamic energy and palpable tension, the whole proceeding is riveting, as emotions are laid bare and confrontations ebb and flow, leading to a devastatingly honest and powerful conclusion.

The cast is simply surperb. Ely gives a master class as Martha, with a fully committed, raw and deeply affecting performance that’s alternately brash, flirtatious, histrionic and defeated.  Roth matches her moment by moment as the seemingly mild-mannered George, who can be both self-deprecating and surprisingly cruel.  Amoroso is strong as the occasionally cocky, occasionally self-doubting Nick, and Bowman, in a difficult role as the outwardly ditzy Honey, infuses her portrayal with an underlying deep sadness that is thoroughly compelling. There’s spark, danger and energy in the chemistry between these performers, and particularly Roth and Ely as a couple who challenge one another out of deep-seated pain and regret, although the ghost of affection is still there as well.

Patrick Huber has designed an excellent set for the small STLAS space–a detailed representation of a cluttered, careworn professor’s home. The muted colors of the set suggest the serious and sometimes dreary tone of the play. The 1960’s setting is well-reflected in Teresa Doggett’s costumes, and Huber’s lighting is intense and effective as well.

This is one of those plays that is basically required viewing for serious theatre fans, and I’m very glad that my first experience seeing this play live was through this outstanding production. So far, the theatre season in St. Louis has been relatively strong, and I’ve seen some very good plays.  This production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? however, is about the closest to a flawless production as I’ve seen all year.  It’s a truly remarkable piece of theatre, and there’s only one weekend left to see it.  I highly advise not missing this first-rate production from St. Louis Actors’ Studio.

Kari Ely, William Roth Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Kari Ely, William Roth
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

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