“Three Tall Women” may not be widely considered the best play Edward Albee wrote (I rank it among his top three), but it is his most affecting and personally inhabited.
This 1994 Pulitzer Prize winner is also the work that rehabilitated his reputation, which had taken a drubbing after a series of flops that made “The Zoo Story” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” seem like the works of a different author.
The subject of “Three Tall Women,” which opened Thursday at Broadway’s Golden Theatre in a production led by a rancorously electrifying Glenda Jackson, is Albee’s adoptive mother, a statuesque patrician with a vituperative manner, from whom he was long estranged. Recollecting her after her death if not with tranquility than with the cool distance of art, the playwright imposes on his autobiographical material an aesthetic form that was at once characteristically inventive and somewhat less characteristically emotionally generous.
The autocratic old lady (played by Jackson with Zeus-like wrath) is given a letter (A) rather than a name. The other two tall women onstage receive the designations of B (a vibrant Laurie Metcalf) and C (the radiant Alison Pill). Their relationships undergo a change between the first and second acts, as the women we’ve known as A’s caretaker (B) and legal assistant (C) become younger incarnations of the character.
With stylish help from costume designer Ann Roth, B transforms from a middle-aged retainer to an already jaded 52-year-old aristocrat while C changes from a self-assured young working professional to an attractive and resourceful 26-year-old who still believes that her happiness is in the future.
The play is set up as a diptych, but it’s really an anatomy of a single life. This Broadway production, gracefully directed by Joe Mantello, performs the work without an intermission, underscoring the seamlessness of Albee’s vision.
Jackson has the central role, and she attacks it with the same vehemence that she brought to her portrayal of King Lear at London’s Old Vic in 2016. That Shakespearean thunderclap was her first time back on stage in 25 years. The two-time Oscar-winning actress took a 23-year detour into politics, and clearly her blistering broadsides as a member of Parliament against the Conservative opposition have kept her histrionic powers sharp within a certain range. At 81, she’s as puissant as ever.
A queen in a beheading mood, Jackson’s A is enthroned in her lavishly appointed bedroom, which resembles a suite at the Hôtel Ritz in Paris. Her lavender dressing gown hints at a feminine softness, but there’s nothing gentle in the peremptory way she treats her underlings, who dutifully try to manage her urinary and verbal incontinence. A’s useless arm is bound in a sling, but when she yelps in pain it’s accusatory, an unveiled threat.
Jackson affects a cumbersome accent that for much of the first half made me think of one of Margaret Dumont’s society matrons in the Marx Brothers films. The strained artificiality eases over time, but Jackson’s performance kicks into another gear after she jettisons the quavering stage-dowager tone.
A more intimate A emerges after she suffers a stroke while telling the tale of her marriage to a short, wealthy philanderer whose mother and sister resented her necessary strength. Rather than going gently into the good night, A steps away from the bed upon which an effigy has been set in her place during the transition. She continues the conversation as the still-intact mind of the character.
Jackson’s ferocity will no doubt win her raves and accolades. She commands the stage with an unfaltering intensity that finds room for childlike vulnerability, somber disillusionment and philosophical wisdom. I was bowled over by the force of her stage presence, but her performance isn’t as thrillingly mercurial as Myra Carter’s — the original and to my mind irreplaceable A.
The rapid fluctuations of mood, the swift shifts from truculence to flippancy, the cracks in obduracy revealing longing and despair — Carter delivered an off-Broadway master class that traveled in effect from Rachmaninoff to Chopin. Jackson’s path is narrower, stylistically and emotionally, which is perhaps why I found myself paying close attention in this New York revival to B and C, who provide color and variety.
Metcalf can give any actor a run for her money, but this exemplary team player chooses to react to Jackson rather than to compete with her. She blends sympathy with sarcasm as A runs through her obstreperous routines. B has heard all the stories before. She has grown acclimated to the invective, the racism, the viciousness and the conniving self-pity. Metcalf revels in the gallows humor of an eldercare companion who has emptied one too many bedpans.
Pill’s C can’t hide her impatience toward A, whose corrosive remarks are meant to get under everyone’s skin. B runs interference, forcing C to question her own callow certainties. But C doesn’t fully come into focus until later in the play, when as the younger A, she wonders what series of disappointments could possibly have transformed her into these frightening older versions of herself. Pill is heartbreaking in these moments, Metcalf helplessly wise, Jackson unflinchingly farseeing.
Mantello’s smoothly calibrated staging takes care of any awkwardness in the structure of Albee’s unconventional drama. The grandly deluxe, conceptually brilliant scenic design by Miriam Buether creates an effect with mirrors that momentarily suggests some of the action is taking place inside a looking glass.
The ensemble, which includes a young man (Joseph Medeiros), who serves as a stand-in for the playwright as he silently pays his respects to the woman he could neither forgive nor forget, becomes more unified over time. Jackson may not draw out the full range her role’s tragicomic music, but her mercilessness potently conveys the playwright’s existential realism.
Albee once quipped that his play is about “a woman who you don’t like in act one, and who you like a little better in act two.” “Three Tall Women” is more profoundly about the shape of a human life, seen objectively by the artist as it’s experienced subjectively by the protagonist at different stages of her existence.
Broadway might not be the ideal home for a play that has no interest in sugarcoating its truth. A smaller venue would draw us in more quietly to a vision better served by understatement. But Albee’s writing is sublimely searing, Mantello’s staging is magnificent to behold and these three larger-than-life actresses are nothing short of transfixing.
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