Brilliant. Extraordinary. Ingenious. Superb. The best. Yet all adjectives and superlatives pale in comparison with the truly unsurpassed quality of the script, performances, direction, design, and production of the Broadway premiere of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women at the Golden Theatre. Filled with searing psychological dissections, dark humor, and cunning metaphysical theatricality, Director Joe Mantello exacts each expressive nuance from the play’s minimal action and rich dialogue, and keeps us hanging on every word and movement delivered by his stirring cast, in Albee’s profound, penetrating, and funny examination of the great existential mysteries of life, death, and memory.
Written in 1991, the multiple-award-winning work, which garnered the playwright his third Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1994, is a semi-autobiographical memory play that revisits the hostile relationship he had with his estranged adoptive mother. But in addition to Albee’s revealing personal reflections, there’s a sweeping universal significance in his ruminations on the stages of life – an updated gynocentric meditation on the age-old theme of the aging cycle of [wo]man, with a pedigree that includes the ancient Greeks, the Roman poet Ovid, and Jaque’s “All the World’s a Stage” monologue in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Here, the all-embracing concept of the life-to-death progression of Every[wo]man is reinforced by Albee leaving his three female characters unnamed, making them decades apart in age, and generically distinguishing them with the sequential letters A, B, and C – all interacting in the bedroom of the nonagenarian A, and each given a direct-address monologue that encapsulates who she is at a particular point in her life.
A remarkable performance by Glenda Jackson, in her highly-anticipated return to the stage after a 30-year hiatus and 23 years of service in England as a Member of Parliament, exceeds all expectations and firmly reasserts her place among the greatest actors of our lifetime. As the elderly A, she seamlessly fuses her character’s growing mental and bodily frailty, plagued by incontinence, limited mobility, deteriorating bones, and senile dementia, with the spirit of an indomitable woman who is proud, bellowing, cantankerous, autocratic, and loquacious, as she commands, insults, and argues with B (her hired caregiver, age 52) and C (a 26-year-old lawyer from the firm who handles her interests), and recounts to them the defining stories of her life with alternating tones of joy and regret. Jackson’s embodiment never misses a beat or lacks an instant of credibility; she is a force of nature and a talent beyond compare. Her unforgettable characterization is supported by an artistic design that bespeaks the woman’s wealth, taste, breeding, and status (costumes by Ann Roth; hair and make-up by Campbell Young Associates), and, with a meaningful shift in her beautifully-appointed bedroom’s configuration, reflects the image of all of us in her life’s journey (set by Miriam Buether).
As B, the delightfully demonstrative Laurie Metcalf allows us to read her every inner thought and emotion on her face and in her body language. Now in midlife, B has become sarcastic, pragmatic, and cynical (sardonically telling the three-decades-younger C that “It’s downhill from sixteen for all of us”). But she also shows the increasing sensitivity, patience, and compassion that come with maturation. In the show’s most telling and touching passages, she advises the clearly annoyed C just to humor A and to let her talk, and is able to calm A’s momentary bouts of sobbing and panic with her clever and comforting words – reassuring her elder that she hasn’t completely lost her memory, it’s only that the thought she’s struggling to recall is not immediately coming to mind.
Alison Pill’s much younger C is seriously focused on her job, impatient with A’s ramblings, and insensitive to her deteriorating condition. She ignores A when she needs help and rails against her confused and redundant stories, until her interest is suddenly piqued by A’s recollections of some salacious sexual episodes from her past, laughably leaning forward and inching closer so as not to miss any of the spicy details. In her illuminating monologue, Pill describes her character’s own sexual awakening and first experience with a mischievous wink, a nostalgic smile, and a dreamy look in her eyes, and expresses her youthful sense of optimism for the future, unable to conceive that she will ever be like A, or even like B, when she gets older.
But – spoiler alert! – as the show progresses, we become aware that C’s self-assured assumption is not the case. We slowly recognize Albee’s break from temporal reality, as the playwright (whose surrogate appears as a silent phantom figure at A’s deathbed) transports us to a surreal place in which the three characters become interwoven, the three ages of A exist simultaneously, and the key points of her life are replayed in her mind as she is dying. It’s a haunting exorcism of the ghost of his adoptive mother and a provocative contemplation on the nature and meaning of life, with the pleasures and failures, humor and remorse that we all face.
Three Tall Women is one towering masterpiece, a rare example of a production that is so perfectly conceived and executed that it enthralls for every second it’s on stage and intrigues long beyond the time we spend in the theater.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes, without intermission.