Theater review by Adam Feldman
Glenda Jackson gives a towering performance in the exquisite new revival of Edward Albee’s brutally truthful 1991 drama, Three Tall Women. That the tower is crumbling makes it all the more fascinating. Now 81, Jackson has not been on Broadway since 1988—she spent 23 of the intervening years as a member of the British Parliament—and here she plays the character identified as A: a rich, mean elderly woman nattering about her life as she nears the end of it. Overtly modeled on Albee’s own mother, A is paranoid, vain, bigoted and demanding; she seems at first a familiar dragon, with claws sunk into her hoard. Yet her imperious bearing is undercut by the intrusions of her aged body—sudden incontinence of bladder or emotion. Jackson tears through the grandeur and pathos with ferocious command.
For a time, it seems as though A’s caregiver, B (the wonderful Laurie Metcalf), and lawyer, C (a flinty Alison Pill), are there mainly to witness the old lady’s death prattle. But at the halfway point, Albee turns the play outside-in. In the central coup de théâtre of Joe Mantello’s scalpel-sharp production, Miriam Buether’s gorgeous set opens up to create a new space of phantoms and mirrors. A, B and C reappear as versions of the same woman at different stages of her life: C as a dreamily calculating ingenue; B as the disillusioned and hardened matron; and A, no longer demented, at the finish line, “the point where you can think about yourself in the third person without being crazy.” (A’s estranged son, a young stand-in for Albee, makes poignant silent appearances behind them. He’s like a sly inversion of the narrating Tom in The Glass Menagerie; we can only guess what he is thinking.)
Three Tall Women enacts the fantasy of being able to talk to yourself at different ages, to warn or remind yourself about what happens in the course of a life. (It also shows the limits: “There’s a difference between knowing you’re going to die and knowing you’re going to die,” as A observes.) As A, B and C confront their various self-images, illusions and memories, the monster of Act One yields to our deeper understanding of who she has been. What makes Albee’s play so moving is not that all three are the same woman; it’s that all three of them are us. Together, they create a singular experience at the theater.
John Golden Theatre (Broadway). By Edward Albee. Directed by Joe Mantello. With Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf, Alison Pill. Running time: 1hr 45mins. No intermission.