Edward Albee is celebrated for his sharply drawn dramas about sharp-tongued people, and Three Tall Women is no exception. It's the story of an old woman, listed only as "A" in the program, nearing the end of her life. "B" is a middle-aged caretaker who sits with her and helps her remember the past. "C" is the younger woman who is there to get important papers signed before it's too late. While the play is directed at A's inevitable death, Three Tall Women is very much about life, making it more hopeful than Albee's reputation would suggest.
What's most surprising about St. Louis Actors' Studio's current production of Three Tall Women is how much it feels like a musical without music. The three lead actresses — Jan Meyer, Amy Loui and Sophia Brown — treat Albee's dialogue like a song sung in rounds, giving the show a thrust and lift that carries it toward a triumphant crescendo. Director Wayne Salomon deserves credit for shepherding them through the changes, but it's difficult to not hear this show as a paean to the way women manage to succeed even in an unforgiving man's world.
The script itself is also quite unforgiving. A and B are a team in the early going, ganging up on C, who takes herself and her work too seriously. C is also horrified by the changes that come with aging; she can't bring herself to touch A, and her fear of A's incontinence sets B cackling. "How you do go on," B chides her. A and B share a knowing look when B warns the younger woman, "It's all downhill from sixteen."
Meyer does outstanding work as A, a woman whose body is betraying her even as her mind is leaving her. She jumps from happy memories of an apartment shared with her sister many years ago to the fraught realization that she can't remember what she was talking about in the space of a few sentences. Meyer handles these tonal swings adroitly, making them real without being maudlin.
In the second act all three actresses are A, but at different ages. Brown is carefree and innocent, dreaming of marriage and all her future happiness. Loui is the assured A of middle age, strong, passionate and much wiser. Meyer takes on a harder edge, made sharp-tongued by her broken marriage, the death of her husband and her friends, and a lengthy estrangement from her son (Michael B. Perkins). "How did I become you?" C asks, shaken by A's spitefulness. "It's something I'd like to know," B echoes.
Even when they get their answer, B and C can't change anything. They will become that lonely old woman, and then all three will die. A offers them grim advice. "They say you can't remember pain. Maybe you can't remember pleasure, either."
So where's that hope? It comes when you're walking back to the car, rattled by your own regrets and sorrows, and you realize there's still time to experience more. More pain, and more pleasure.