Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 29, 2018
Three Tall Women by Edward Albee. Directed by Joe Mantello. Scenic design by Miriam Buether. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Paul Gallo. Sound design by Fitz Patton. Hair and Makeup design by Campbell Young Associates. Cast: Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf, and Alison Pill.
Ms. Jackson famously left acting to enter the equally dramatic world of politics in her native Britain, where she served as a Member of Parliament for more than two decades. But now she's back on stage, and we are indeed fortunate to be able to see her in a role she seizes in her teeth like a voracious lioness until she wrestles it (and us) into submission. In Three Tall Women, she plays a woman of 91 or 92, the difference being a rather silly bone of contention between her and a no-nonsense visitor (Alison Pill) from her attorney's office. The first half of the hour and forty-five minute intermissionless play takes place in what the playwright describes as a "wealthy bedroom," which, as designed by Miriam Buether, looks like a suite you'd find in an upscale French hotel, lovely but coldly devoid of photos or other personal items. Enthroned on one of the chairs, and watched over by a caregiver played by Laurie Metcalf, Ms. Jackson's character dominates the conversation. (Now might be a good time to point out that none of the women has a name; Ms. Jackson's character is called A, Ms. Metcalf is B, and Ms. Pill is C).
While the older woman loves being the center of attention and can be quite effusive, she also is childish, argumentative, forgetful, suspicious, spiteful, and not always in control of her bladder and bowels. While none of this sounds very inviting, the amazing thing about the first half of the play is that it is often laugh-out-loud funny, thanks to Albee's wry script and Ms. Jackson's and Ms. Metcalf's exquisite delivery. (Ms. Pill can do little more than serve as a foil to her two colleagues in this part of the play.)
It's hard to find examples that work strictly on the page, but there's a certain Lewis Carroll quality to some of the lines. For instance, when Ms. Pill presses Ms. Jackson, rather cruelly, to identify what day it is, the latter hesitates in confusion for a moment, then suddenly grins from ear to ear with her answer: "Why, it's today of course. What day do you think it is?!" Later, when she is trying to come up with the name of a well-known movie star from the 1930s, all she can think of to describe her is: "She was tiny! She had two eyes!" Lines like these pop up all through the first half. And thanks to Ms. Jackson's wonderful timing and Ms. Metcalf's great ability to incorporate comic facial expressions, shrugs, and other body language to underscore every line and reaction, you can't help but laugh even as you understand that what you are witnessing is a woman's last days of life.
Gradually, the absurdist humor gives way to a deepening darkness. Underneath the laughter, the old lady shows more than a streak of malevolence, such as her racist references to African Americans and Italians, or when she spouts off about "that little Jew who makes my furs. What's her name? They all rob you blind if you so much as turn your back on them." By the end of the first half, she has begun to wallow in self-pity and to pick at the dark brooding scabs of her life. She has, for example, mentioned her son a couple of times, and the flowers and chocolates he sometimes brings to her. But since Albee, who was gay, has publicly stated that this play reflects the tumultuous relationship between himself and his own adoptive mother, we understand that the son Ms. Jackson is referring to is Albee himself, who left home at 17 and stayed away for many years. Knowing this, it's quite a moment when she spews out: "He doesn't love me. He doesn't! He loves his boys, those boys he has."
Right before a brief pause in the action, Ms. Jackson lies down on the bed and suddenly becomes non-responsive. She has had a stroke that leads into the second half of the play, which is as laden with disappointment, rage, and acrimony as the first half was with dark humor. Conjured up by the dying woman's damaged brain, Ms. Pill and Ms. Metcalf are no longer who they were; they are now younger versions of the nonagenarian, at the ages of 26 (Ms. Pill) and 52 (Ms. Metcalf). Together, the trio are the "three tall women" of the title, all of them aspects of the same person at various times in her life.
As the youngest of the three, Ms. Pill gets a rancor-and-resentment-filled preview of what she will experience as she gets older. "How did I change?" she demands of the other two. For their part, they are happy to oblige by filling her in on their checklist of complaints about mothers, husbands, and sons. When a silent young man (unbilled in the credits) appears bearing flowers, Ms. Metcalf goes into a sarcastic tirade as she and Ms. Jackson warn Ms. Pill about the son who will abandon her without a word.
In this, and in some other moments, you might be reminded of the characters in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie as they might seem years after Tom has left home, and his mother Amanda, like Ms. Jackson's character, has become old and embittered. How miserable must your life have been if, when asked to invoke your happiest moment, you identify the one that will occur "when it's all done, when we stop"?
You could argue that Three Tall Women is less a full-scale play than it is a character study about one exceedingly miserable character who has been laid out on a slab and dissected for the world to see. Call it an "exorcism," a term Albee has used to describe the work, or call it an act of revenge, his very own "Mommy Dearest." Be thankful for the humor that comes out in the first half; for the audience, it is a necessary inhalation of fresh air before diving into the depths of grudges and enmity. But it is well worth taking that deep breath and plunging in. Everything about this production, from the tidily formal set design that is magically rearranged in the brief pause between the two parts of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, to Joe Mantello's brilliant directing, to the exquisite performances, shows Albee to be a past master of writing with the precision of a surgeon.