“I was tall and I was strong,” recalls the oldest woman in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, and you believe it, because it is Glenda Jackson, who commands even as she winces in pain or cries in embarrassment or drifts into sad memories.
Jackson hasn’t been on a Broadway stage since 1988; she took a long detour from acting to become a member of the British Parliament. Three Tall Women has never been on a Broadway stage before. The 1994 Off-Broadway production of the play restored Albee’s reputation after 20 years of critical drubbing, winning him his third Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Jackson makes clear how much we’ve missed by her absence from acting. But this is just one of the many triumphs of this exquisite Broadway premiere directed by Joe Mantello and co-starring Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill. It is hard to imagine a better production of Albee’s humorous, caustic, secretly compassionate look at a life – and a death. It feels a fitting homage to the playwright, who died in 2016.
Jackson plays A (as Albee designates the character), who in the first half of the play is a rich old dying woman of 92, attended by B (Laurie Metcalf) her no-nonsense caretaker, and C (Alison Pill) an officious young emissary from her attorney’s office. The interaction among the three is often amusing: “It must be awful,” Alison Pill’s character says privately to Laurie Metcalfe’s, “to begin to lose it, I mean—the control, the loss of dignity, the . . . “
“Oh, stop it!” Metcalf’s character says. “It’s downhill from sixteen on! For all of us!”
But this section of the play really belongs to A, whom Albee is said to have based on his unliked adoptive mother. The character, drifting in and out lucidity, reveals herself as vain, demanding, paranoid, self-pitying, as well as casually Anti-Semitic and racist and homophobic. But she is also nostalgic, and there is beauty in her remembrance of how much she loved horses, and romance in her recollections of her husband – romance and, in one drolly memorable anecdote, lasciviousness. This was before her husband fell sick, and her mother fell old.
Suddenly, A stops talking.
Oh, my God, is she dead?
No, she’s still alive. I think she’s had a stroke.
The curtain falls, briefly (there is no intermission) and when it lifts again, we are now in a hall of mirrors – with A’s bedroom, and her body, visible on the other side….a coup by the design team, especially set designer Miriam Buether
Glenda Jackson is still the woman she was in the first half, albeit in better shape, but the two other actresses are versions of that same woman at different stages of her life – Alison Pill at age 26, and Laurie Metcalf at age 53. In conversation and monologue, they offer a fascinating difference of perspectives on their life. But this is more than an exercise. It feels like real wisdom, hard earned by experience (both that of the characters, and of the playwright, who was in his 60s when he wrote the play.)
The differing perspectives are driven home visually by Ann Roth’s costumes. All three women are wearing purple dresses in Act II, but Pill’s is with a design of flowers, Metcalf’s has an abstract design and Jackson’s is solid purple, with a bold string of pearls – as lovely and thought-provoking a symbolic representation of aging as I’ve ever seen. Roth’s costumes in the first half also help clarify the characters in a wonderful way. Pill’s character is wearing stiletto heels, while Metcalf’s is wearing sneakrs
Metcalf is not the first actress you might think of to portray the cold patrician at middle age – she is best known still as Roseanne’s working class sister in both the old TV series and in its current reboot, despite her triumphs in A Doll’s House Part 2 and Ladybird. Furthermore, she doesn’t try to mirror the naïve arrogance of her younger self or the bitter aloofness of her older. This is perhaps the director’s way of telling us that people do change. In any case, Metcalf’s performance, in perfect counterpoint to Jackson’s, makes Three Tall Women flow naturally. In lesser hands, the dialogue in this play, as in many of Albee’s, could come across as studied.
While each woman’s perspective is enlightening, and entertaining, it is Glenda Jackson’s meditation on facing death that finds the heartbreak in this play by the coolest of America’s major dramatists.
“Coming to the end of it, I think, when all the waves cause the greatest woes to subside…where you can think about yourself in the third person without being crazy. I’ve waked up in the morning, and I’ve thought, well, now, she’s waking up, and now she’s going to see what works—the eyes, for example. Can she see? She can? Well, good, I suppose….”
Three Tall Women is on stage at the John Golden Theatre (252 West 45th Street, between 7th and 8th Aves, New York, N.Y. 10036) through June 24, 2018.
Tickets and details
Three Tall Women by Edward Albee . Directed by Joe Mantello. Set by Miriam Buether; costumes by Ann Roth; lighting by Paul Gallo; sound, by Fitz Patton; featuring Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell