Of course, all of us know that life is finite, but few of us manage to acknowledge that fact until the final curtain is lowering.
Martha Henry—one of the Stratford Festival’s most accomplished and celebrated actors/directors (cross-references below) deliberately chose her swan song (do walk along the Avon River), Edward Albee’s 1990 classic that simultaneously celebrates and decries the notion that “you can’t choose your relatives” even as one singular person A (Henry) has a two-hour chat with alter egos B 52 years (Lucy Peacock) and C 26 years (Mamie Zwettler).
Film director Barry Avrich (a frequent collaborator with Stratford’s cinematic catalogue—cross-reference below) brings career-long collaborator Diana Leblanc’s 2021 stage production to the big screen with an overarching intimacy that aptly suits the Studio Theatre’s intimate confines.
The opening strings and harp soundscape as the black-and-white credits roll by, deftly set the temper and tone for all that is to follow.
In Act 1, confined to a wheelchair, “useless” left arm in a sling, A holds court with B and C, lifting off with the statement, “I am ninety-one”, to which C corrects, “You’re ninety-two.” Knowing it is useless to argue, B—as she will frequently intercede to keep the peace—acts as the sage go-between. After all, why dispute trivial fallacies? Architect or woodworker; promiscuous to a point, but unable to go down—even if a priceless bracelet was offered up on a fully engorged “pee pee”; “everyone’s stealing” despite the lack of evidence (so appropriate in our dangerous era of Stop the Steal trumped-up lies!). The discreetly placed Louis Vuitton shopping bag, sumptuous pearls (real or not) and shimmering attire speak volumes to A’s wealth; having a “servant” and legal courier at hand reinforces the notion of privilege and class.
Henry’s final role is a masterclass of timing, nuance, myriad emotions and telling understatements that must be seen by anyone interested in theatrical excellence on both sides of the footlights. Thank goodness it was captured for all to see.
None better than Peacock to keep everything flowing (quite literally on the two trips to the loo), while revelling in memories past with A—true or not. N’importe de quoi.
Zwettler brings just the right balance of naiveté and burgeoning worldliness to both serve as foil to A’s reminiscences and rebellious, haughty woman who refuses to follow in her “mother’s footsteps”—she hopes.
Act II might well be subtitled, “Twilight of the Ghosts.” Even as Act 1 A languishes on her lofty deathbed, the three women—curiously but not coincidentally sporting the same crimson lipstick—continue their discussions, culminating in the perpetually silent arrival of A’s estranged son (Andrew Iles).
Not surprisingly, the topics become darker, notably B’s vivid, riveting retelling of a ride in the hay in more ways than one; A’s husband’s six-year struggle with cancer; and a showstopping soliloquy as A explains life’s inevitable conclusion to her only child.
All three women admit searching for the “happiest moment”. By journey’s end, only A finds it.
From a cinematic point of view, the lighting for this production comes across as a tad too hot, too often; similarly, the sound levels belie the movement around the stage. Best in class are Avrich’s decisions about reaction shots (expertly rendered by cinematographer Andy Rosso and seamlessly put together by editor George Roulston).
Albee’s semi-biographical portrait of a life lived, filled with fun, regrets and final understandings, could have no better advocates than this extraordinary cast and crew. JWR