Glenda Jackson has a few things to say, and it’s probably best not to interrupt.
In Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, opening tonight at Broadway’s Golden Theatre, the esteemed British actress and former British M.P. plays A, an ageing, sick grand dame who—no surprise—ain’t going quietly.
Though A may be seated in her swag-draped bedroom, plushly appointed by production designer Miriam Buether; though she has osteoporosis and is frightened of falling; though mortality is stalking her all-too-closely, she holds forth and then some—about the past, about the glories and loves of that past, and the many trespasses she feels have been committed against her.
In Albee’s jewelry box of a script (truly, open it up and delight in the many trinkets), the elderly and infirm A sits in her chair, laughing, goading, weeping, scowling, and gleefully offending. The play was first performed in 1991, and won Albee his third Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1994. (Albee died aged 88 in September 2016.)
Albee based the play on his adoptive mother, he said, and the silent, ghostly and reviled figure of A’s son that we see in the play is him.
“I knew I did not want to write a revenge piece—could not honestly do so, for I felt no need for revenge,” Albee once noted of his relationship with his mother. “We had managed to make each other very unhappy over the years, but I was past all that, though I think she was not. I harbor no ill will toward her; it is true I did not like her much, could not abide her prejudices, her loathings, her paranoias, but I did admire her pride, her sense of self. As she moved toward 90, began rapidly failing both physically and mentally, I was touched by the survivor, the figure clinging to the wreckage only partly of her own making, refusing to go under.”
The other two women on stage are 52-year-old B (a brisk, wry and watchful Laurie Metcalf, who won the Tony for Best Actress in a Play last year for A Doll's House, Part 2) and 26-year-old C (Alison Pill, dressed for work as A’s lawyer, impatient at A’s prejudices and inability to focus on legal matters). A has no time for C and C has no time for A. B, as the alphabetical ordering of their letters suggests, with oldest of the women first, is the behavioral and tonal pivot between them
Three Tall Women, directed with a sublimely paced grace by Joe Mantello, is very funny and very sad. It charts the progress of a life, and a discussion of the self as it ages, from the vantage point of knowing everything, down through the middle age of knowing quite a bit, and then the young person not knowing much at all.
A recalls with joy all “the silver cups we won, and bowls, and platters,” she and sister won when they rode horses when young. “We knew all the judges but that’s not why we would win: we won because we were the best.”
Competition, winning, and “fixing” all her rivals preoccupy A. And then her frailty gets her: “I broke the glass! I broke the glass! … I have to sit down! I can’t sit down by myself! Why won’t somebody help me?!” Jackson perfectly captures A as both tough, and ready to shatter.
The testiness of the chat between the women in the first act is polished. “Are you comfortable? Do you want your pillow?” B asks A.
To which Jackson imperiously replies: “Of course I’m not comfortable; of course I want my pillow.” Well, Jackson—who is four-time Tony-nominated —did play Queen Elizabeth I in the BBC’s Elizabeth R back in the 1970s: if anyone can do regal, and not to be messed with, she can.
Of A’s racism and so much else, C in her office business suit mulls: “I’m just trying to decide what I think’s really the most hilarious—unpaid bills, anti-Semitism, senility, or . . . “
B interrupts her: “Now, now. Play in your own league, huh?”
If Jackson is the regal heart of the play, B and C have pivotal roles too, especially in the second act (the play is performed without intermission), in which the play’s central conceit shifts: the three women are now all A, seen at different ages, giving Metcalf and Pill a more intriguing canvas to play on (particular props to Pill who holds her own, while having the least sympathetic material to work with). The three women have become one.
Three Tall Women is a play about the polarities and progression of life: birth and death, and the fabric of the messes in between.
Of breathing, B notes: “The first one you take in you’re upside down and they slap you into it. The last one . . . well, the last one you let it all out . . . and that’s it. You start . . . and then you stop . . . I’d like to see children learn it—have a six-year-old say, ‘I’m dying’ and know what it means.”
The ghost child of Albee himself—a silent male actor—watches A with a mixture of what looks like contempt and confusion. That’s nothing to the voiced contempt and confusion A has for him, and for everyone. “Everybody’s robbing me—right and left. Everybody steals. Everybody steals something,” she says. She is vituperative, poisonous, and also vulnerable, and desperately trying to net and contain as many elusive memories as possible.
A is gentler in the second act. Mortality is ever closer: there is an unseen dead body in a bed, and the three women all look and sound different, in three variations of similarly glamorous dresses to underscore they are the same person.
There is more discussion of A’s marriage, his awful family, her awful son, a terrible cancer to face. You can feel Albee’s understanding widening, him forcing it to widen, as the play progresses.
What does A see as relief? Death itself. “Coming to the end of it, I think, when all the waves cause the greatest woes to subside, leaving breathing space, time to concentrate on the greatest woe of all—that blessed one—the end of it.”
The plush, cushioned, room we are in comes to feel like a luxurious purgatory, a metaphysical interrogation room of personal reckoning. This is the story of a life and the inquisition of that life too by its main participant, with all the truths and self-deceptions such a summation would encompass.
It is intriguing to watch Albee’s distillation of time, personality, and mortality so beautifully filleted by three fine actresses—with Jackson surely certain of a fifth Tony nomination, and possibly her first it's-about-time victory.
It is even more intriguing to wonder—when it came to his mother—what fresh insight, relief or closure writing the play brought Albee himself.
Three Tall Women is at Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, NYC. Booking to June 24.