What would it be like, as an older person, to meet younger versions of yourself? To question the life choices they made? And in turn, be questioned by them as to how you have subsequently lived your life?
That is the fate of 92-year-old “A,” the protagonist of Edward Albee’s play “Three Tall Women,” which opens April 8 at Cinnabar Theater.
Directed by Michael Fontaine and starring Laura Jorgensen, the Pulitzer prize-winning play from 1990 is famous for its innovative structure, which veers from realism in the first act to the irrationally symbolic in the second.
In the first act, wealthy, cantankerous A interacts with her 52-year-old caretaker, B, played by Amanda Vitiello. Also present is a representative of A’s legal team, 26-year-old C, played by Tiffani Lisieux.
These are the “three tall women.”
In Act Two it becomes clear why Albee named the characters A, B and C. The caretaker and lawyer have now become embodiments of A herself, at ages 52 and 26, respectively. Given A’s troubled past, including estrangement from her son — a non-speaking role played by Jean-Colin Cameron — all three have burning questions to ask and issues to resolve.
Fontaine believes the innovative nature of the play partly explains why it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1994.
“It made a unique contribution to the theater at the time,” he said.
The play reflects Albee’s roots in so-called Theater of the Absurd, a post-World War II designation for plays that eschew logic for irrationality. Fontaine chose to rehearse Act Two before Act one.
“I had never done that before,” he said. “It was so we could see clearly what the absurdist elements were and how they should inform Act One. It was helpful. I made some useful discoveries this way.”
Fontaine himself began directing and acting at Cinnabar 33 years ago and has logged 40 productions there. Born and raised in Santa Rosa, he lives in Sebastopol. He received his BA in acting from San Francisco State University, his MFA in directing from University of California Davis, and a PhD in leadership from the University of San Francisco.
Three Tall Women is generally thought to be autobiographical. Adopted two weeks after birth by a wealthy couple in Larchmont, New York, Albee grew up resisting authority, both parental and academic. He managed to be expelled at the elementary, high school and college levels. A gay man, he often fought with his conventionally bigoted mother and left home at age 18.
While the play is a serious exploration of mortality, regret and other somber topics, it is also frequently funny.
“It’s laugh-out-loud, hysterically funny, which may surprise some of the audience,” said Jorgensen, who is playing the role of A for the second time. “She has so many stories,” she said. “I don’t relate to all of them but I love them. She’s difficult, she flies off the handle. And she’s so multi-faceted — it’s been fun finding her different sides.”
The character of A is older than Jorgensen, but the gap is not what it was 23 years ago, when Jorgenson first played the role.
Said Jorgensen, “She was a different character to me then.”
In a years-long artistic collaboration, Jorgensen has been directed by Fontaine nine times and has acted with him once.
“I love working with Michael, and he’s gotten better and better as a director,” she said. “He’s very specific, with no loose ends, which I like.”
Vitiello, who plays B, recently settled in Petaluma. She performed in “Cry It Out” at Cinnabar last summer. The role has earned her a nomination for Principal Performance in a Comedy, the nominations named last week by the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.
“The text is complicated and challenging in a good way,” Vitiello said. “My character provides some comic relief at times, which is fun.”
In Act Two, B is in the middle of two worlds, her youth and her old age. She is also at the painful point in A’s life when she is estranged from her son, “a wound that hasn’t healed,” explained Vitiello.
“As an actor in this role, you get see all the stages of your character’s life,” she said. “You learn a lot about her whole life. It’s a dream come true to be in this play.”
C is played by Tiffani Lisieux, who recently settled in San Jose with her husband and newborn son after living in Texas. As for playing two different characters in one play, Lisieux said Fontaine helped her find a through-line between the characters.
“In the first act, she becomes a little more like the woman in Act Two,” she said, “and in Act Two she becomes a little more like the one in Act One.”
Act Two was an unusual challenge for Lisieux because her character interacts with two older versions of herself. Her solution to a complex problem was simple.
“As an actor, you go back to the basics of listening, so you can react properly,” she said.
Instead of daily rehearsals, Fontaine decided to rehearse every other day to make life a little easier for Lisieux and her baby. What he discovered, however, was that all three actors benefited from the extra time to assimilate what had been learned in each rehearsal.
COVID-19, not too surprisingly, intruded on rehearsals, with one of the actors out sick for 12 days. The cast had to work via Zoom, with Fontaine saying such things as, “If you were here, you’d have to walk stage left on this line.”
Lisieux said she felt compelled to take the role despite the long commute from San Jose.
“This is a play that called to me,” she said. Earlier, she had sent Cinnabar an audition tape. Fontaine saw it, called her and cast her. Said Lisieux, “You don’t pass up a part like this.”