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The Passions of Pamela Rabe


Pamela Rabe’s performance in the new Australian film Vacant Possession caused excitement at the Sydney Film Festival, yet she insists she is addicted to the adrenalin of exercising her soul on the stage.

But after playing such powerful figures as Virginia Woolf and Strindberg’s Miss Julie, why is Rabe in raptures about playing a mysterious young woman simply named “C” in Three Tall Women, a new production by the Sydney Theatre Company?

“It’s an extraordinary piece,” says Rabe of Edward Albee’s Pulitzer prize-winning play. “Albee’s deliberately ambiguous about the characters, other than stating their ages. The moment you try to explain them or nail them down you ruin it.”

Rabe has dubbed the play ‘Waiting for Godot for girls”, and the parallels are clear. As the protagonist is a 92-year-old bedridden and dying woman, there is a minimum of high-kicks. It is a play of the mind with a built-in twist.

Rabe is quick to pluck out the thorn of sexual politics. “It’s not just about women. It’s a beautiful play about human beings.” she says. “Not a lot happens, but you learn a lot.” This is Rabe’s first professional crack at Albee, one of theatre’s most skilful and visceral phrasemakers.

“With most plays a certain amount of editing or pruning will go on, but he’s a master at naturalistic dialogue,” she says. “Phrases are repeated, some trail off. It’s never random or arbitrary, but a bugger to learn.”

Pamela Rabe | Photo by Paul Jones 1995

Stage height … Pamela Rabe. | Photography by PAUL JONES

Rabe admits she finds the play a technical challenge, a theatrical relay event in which the almost musical exchange of verbal batons leaves no room for Primadonnas.

“You can’t afford to miss a beat or try to hold on to your moment any longer than you should. I’ve never felt the responsibility to perform as a team as I have with this piece,” she says.

Which is why she’s breathing a sigh of relief to be working with actors of the calibre of Pippa Williamson and Ruth Cracknell.

“To work with wonderful actors is what you aspire to, you just kind of hope you can hold up your end,” Rabe says. “But Ruth is one of those people who are absolutely in the present. There’s such a twinkle in her eye. She makes you relax and forget.”

Known simply as “A”, Cracknell plays the cantankerous but loveable woman on her deathbed forced to reassess her life. What could be worse, Albee himself once said, than coming to the end of your life realty having failed, and nothing to be done about it. One American critic even advised people who didn’t expect to die against seeing the play.

The usually serene Rabe snickers at the absurd necessity of such an optimistic outlook. “Of course we have to live our lives not expecting to die,” she says. “But death is such a taboo subject. My own father died recently and to encounter this play has been confronting.

“You become aware that there is only so much time, only so much you can achieve and only so many people you can affect.”

Sounds depressing? Rabe insists that the play is positively life affirming after Strindberg, full of love and wicked humour.

And height. Audiences must prepare for the impact of three very fine, vertically-endowed actresses in full flight.

Three Tall Women is playing at the Wharf Theatre until August 12.


Source: | 30 June 1995

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