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Trust Fall
Director Allison Narver on letting Albee take the reins
By Andrea Allen, Director of Education

Three Tall Women Director Allison Narver

"I am so excited to work on a play that I can completely trust," says Director Allison Narver, one week prior to beginning rehearsals for Three Tall Women. "With Albee, everything is so deliberate. There are no wasted words. I can believe in every period, every comma, and every silence."

That confidence in his work is something Edward Albee demands from the artists who work on his plays. While most writers are eager for any and all productions of their work, Edward Albee must personally approve every request for rights, as well as directors and actors.

"There's something both humble and kind of arrogant about his writing," continues Narver. "It feels very true and honest and simple, but he believes in it so much. I read an interview where somebody asked him, 'What would you do if a master actor wanted to change some of the words in your play?' and his response was, 'A master actor would never do that.' Because there is no reason to. Every word is there because it needs to be there."

Albee's arrogance is justified: he is arguably the greatest living American playwright, the winner of three Pulitzer Prizes and two Tony awards (plus a special Tony in 2005 for lifetime achievement). His first play, The Zoo Story, was produced in 1958, and he won his first Pulitzer less than ten years later with A Delicate Balance in 1967. Now in his seventh decade of writing, Albee's newest play, Me, Myself and I, recently enjoyed a successful run in New York.

"It's difficult to pin down a specific style for Albee plays," says Narver. "He went through different phases. This play [Three Tall Women, which was first produced in 1991, Pulitzer Prize in 1994] is so unlike his earlier plays. So unlike Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? [1961]. So unlike Seascape [1974, Pulitzer Prize in 1975]. And yet there are thematic similarities that are kind of wonderful: the lonely kid, the lost son and the embattled family. The parental figures. The cold, difficult distant mother. There are these things that surface and re-surface."

Albee was born in 1928, adopted at two weeks of age by a wealthy couple, and grew up in Westchester County. Three Tall Women is Albee's most autobiographical work, based on his relationship with his adopted mother, a women who disapproved of his lifestyle and homosexuality. He has referred to writing the piece as an exorcism of sorts.

"I did not cry and gnash my teeth as I put this woman down on paper," writes Albee in his 1994 introduction to the published script of Three Tall Women. "I cannot recall suffering either with her or because of her as I wrote her. I recall being very interested in what I was doing—fascinated by the horror and sadness I was (re)creating."

While the writing process may not have been emotionally arduous, the fact remains that Albee wrote this play because his mother died. "He needed to figure out what to do with her," says Narver. "Because she was an Amazon in his mind. She was so big. And so I think that's where I relate to it—where I love it. And I love that it's beautiful and it's also kind of chilly. Because when those actors read in auditions, it wasn't chilly at all. It knocked me out. The play just jumped off the page. It came alive.

Casting the three tall women, of course, was crucial. "The first person I cast was Megan Cole as 'A'," says Narver. "I grew up in Seattle watching her on stage—following her from theatre to theatre." Cole was most recently seen at the Rep in Wit (1999). She is joined by Suzanne Bouchard playing 'B', most recently seen in By the Waters of Babylon (2008), and Alexandra Tavares, who is making her Seattle Rep debut.

"First of all I wanted people who got that every period, every comma, every question mark is critical—just as critical as the words, if not more so," recalls Narver. "I was looking for actors who had a sense of bearing and a kind of aristocratic nature, reminiscent of Albee's Westchester up-bringing. Somebody who would terrify a little boy, but also then make him want her to love him. Someone who can spin on a dime and be charming and fun and then horrible. I looked for people who weren't afraid to go to the dark place, but could also keep it sympathetic."

The meaning of the play has changed for Narver since she first read it back at Yale Drama School in 1996. "I didn’t have any sense of my own mortality and what that meant," remembers Narver. "Reading it now, my first connection to this play is about women and the course of their lives. That feeling when you sit in a room with somebody who you love or you have a complicated relationship with who is dying and what that experience is. What it means to let somebody to go—and what it means for that person to let themselves go. What it means to be alive and what it means to die."

Finding that humor within the sadness is the real trick of the play. "It's a really sad play," says Narver. "But I think it's going to be a really funny play, too. I think his comic rhythms are so incredibly sophisticated that it can't help but be funny…There's a rigor to the play that holds it together and keeps it from being maudlin. The characters get maudlin, but the play doesn't."

Narver pauses. "That's where the craftsmanship comes in. The true brilliance of the writer. He is in complete control of this play. It's not the characters' play. It's Albee's play."