New York City Theater
"Three Tall Women"
When actors speak of their “instrument,” they’re speaking of how their bodies, voices and minds combine to delineate and project a character. Glenda Jackson, returning to the Broadway stage in the revival of Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women,” is not just one instrument but an entire symphony orchestra. Caustic, witty, nasty, pitiful, commanding and simply magnificent, she portrays a physical wreck of a woman who wouldn’t think of going gently into that good night. Jackson, last seen hereabouts in 1988 as another harridan, Lady Macbeth, is a towering figure from whom you can’t look away.
Albee won his third Pulitzer Prize for this work, following a fallow period in his career. Always a writer whose battle with death pervades many of his pieces (“Virginia Woolf,” “The Lady From Dubuque,” “A Delicate Balance,” “All Over”), here takes on events leading to the demise of his formidable mother.
Adopted as an infant, Albee had a love/hate relationship with his adoptive mom, leading to strains and eventual rejection. In “Three Tall Women,” he finds redemption and a modicum of unsentimental reconciliation.
In Act One, A (the characters are identified as A, B and C) is 91 or maybe 92, she doesn’t know which. A wealthy grande dame, querulous, bitter, bigoted, forgetful and volatile, she remembers a life of passion both fulfilled and thwarted. B is her caretaker, patient to the point of indulgence, while C is a candid young lawyer. Arching over all is the anticipation of the arrival of A’s son. “He never comes to see me,” says A, tearfully, “and when he does he never stays,” vindictively adding, “I’ll fix him. I’ll fix all of them.”
In Act Two, A, B and C are aspects of the same woman at different ages, a theatrical coup that lets us see not only how we’re influenced by the past but how dreams become disappointments. Bantering about what is and what’s to come, the three aspects discover and accept the trajectory of their lives. In another theatrical trick, we in the audience are prompted to do the same.
Director Joe Mantello emphasizes the play’s seesawing between raucous humor and weepy reminiscence. As marvelous as Jackson is in delineating A’s mercurial moods so sharply, so filled with anger and self-pity, she’s not alone. As C, Alison Pill eschews naiveté, picturing a young woman whose hopes are dashed. Laurie Metcalf’s B is sardonic and pragmatic, tough and weary. They’re both excellent.
“Three Tall Women” is filled, at last, with forgiveness. But getting to that point is as dark a journey as any in Samuel Beckett. “I will not become that,” says C about the aging A. But she does; we all do. Dedicated to the fallibility of existence, the play balances love and hate, happiness and disappointment, life and death. No easy answers.
--David A. Rosenberg
April 12, 2018