Paint by numbers

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  April 1, 2008

Three Tall Women is so exactingly written that a director does best to get out of its way and let it humanely unfold. Spiro Veloudos does so at the Lyric, where the atmosphere of insular gentility reflected in Cristina Todesco’s set, a mosaic of parquet and wallpaper and rich fabrics, is picked up in Peter Bayne’s tasteful yet plaintive original music. Neither does the director flinch from the first act’s portrayal of age in all its agonizing oppressiveness. Each sniping, helpless journey from upholstered chair to canopied bed or off-stage bath is painstakingly portrayed as the whine-inducing struggle it is. One is relieved in the second act, when the 90-year-old A has at least retreated from that final horizon sufficiently to perambulate on a cane, doing fierce if hardly humorless battle with her earlier manifestations, the youngest of whom flatly refuses to become her.

This is not, on the face of it, an ideally cast production. Its three women are not particularly tall, and neither do they resemble one another. As the moribund A, Trinity Repertory Company stalwart Anne Scurria, who is in her 50s, is earthy rather than patrician. But what a sly, terrific actress she is, whether turning on a dime from grim amusement to senile tears or sharing a conspiratorial joke with a younger self. And here she’s teamed with the sublime Paula Plum, whose first-act B is a little rumpled yet razor-sharp, evolving in act two into a perfectly put-together jaded matron of the mid 20th century. If Liz Hayes, as the callous C, isn’t quite in their league, neither is her role. She does bring to the 26-year-old “good girl” with a wild streak a jubilant innocence teetering on regret that’s reminiscent of Emily in Our Town, but she misses the calculation already nascent in the character. Dan Kerrigan is the Albee stand-in, frozen at 18.

There is more bloviation than blow job in Mac Wellman’s political broadside named for a series of fellations. The 1991 7 Blowjobs was spurred by the efforts of Senator Jesse Helms, the American Family Association’s Donald Wildmon, the Reverend Pat Robertson, and others to strap a fig leaf on the National Endowment for the Arts, limiting that organization’s funding to the pure of heart. The play was in fact dedicated to Helms, Wildmon, Robertson, and conservative California congressman Dana Rohrabacher, whom Wellman dubbed “The Four Harebrained Horsemen of the Contemporary Cornball Apocalypse.” The Moral Majority has not gone away, so neither has the pertinence of Wellman’s sledgehammer of a satire, which Theatre on Fire wields vigorously at Charlestown Working Theater (through April 5). Unfortunately, the play — a one-trick pony that repeats and repeats its exaggerated display of right-wing shock and awe in the presence of the prurient — hasn’t gotten any funnier. What humor can be sifted from amid 75 minutes of rampaging tedium Theatre on Fire does, fielding a wacky production that’s as cartoonish as the play.

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