By Manning Harris
Ah, the joys of the well-made play! Everything works in “Third,” Wendy Wasserstein’s last play, now being given its Atlanta premiere in a first-class production by Horizon Theatre Company, directed by Lisa Adler and running through October 11. Playwright Wasserstein’s untimely death in 2006 at age 55 cut short a career already distinguished by plays such as “The Heidi Chronicles” (Tony and Pulitzer winner), “Uncommon Women,” “The Sisters Rosensweig,” and others. She often focuses on intelligent and successful women plagued with self-doubt in works that are funny, political, and theatrical.
“Third” is possibly her wisest play. Professor Laurie Jameson (Mary Lynn Owen) is an established, esteemed English literature teacher and scholar at a prestigious, liberal arts college in New England. The year is 2003 and President George W. Bush has just launched the invasion of Iraq. Laurie is a popular and ardently feminist teacher, 50-something, (she would hate the fact that I just called her Laurie) who can wring a feminist slant from “King Lear” as easily as you can tie your shoe. That she does so with great unself-conscious wit is a source of delight to the audience.
Into her life walks Woodson Bull III—his friends call him Third—a good-looking young man from the Midwest (played by Will Bradley) whose father and grandfather attended the school when it was for men only, as he cheerfully says to Laurie. He is a varsity wrestler and plans to be a sports agent. Everything about Laurie and Third would seem to make them diametrical opposites.
But all is not as it seems. Third, to Laurie’s intense surprise and annoyance, is extremely intelligent. As Ms. Adler remarks in her program notes, much of the play concerns judging and pre-judging others, making first impression assumptions—even when we may pride ourselves in our open-minded tolerance. Third turns in a paper on “King Lear” so brilliant that she is positive he must have plagiarized and puts the matter before the college’s Committee of Academic Standards.
“Third” is also about third acts in people’s lives, about the necessity of shifting one’s consciousness if one is to keep growing. In this very well-made play, Laurie must also deal with her best friends’s (Marianne Fraulo) illness, her now grown daughter’s (Cara Mantella) coming of age, and her father’s (Tom Thon) increasing dementia. All of these actors turn in lovely performances, especially Ms. Owen as Laurie.
I must say it’s a pleasure to see a play (and the actors!) up close in the intimate space that is the Horizon Theatre. “Third” is political and personal, serious and funny; it’s a fitting coda to the art of playwright Wendy Wasserstein. The Horizon has done her proud.