Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” At Golden Theatre, Saturday, March 2nd, 2018, Reviewed
The question that confronts you on Edward Albee’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize winning play “Three Tall Women” is, what has this to do with us? A character study of Albee’s dislikable adoptive mother whom he left at the age of eighteen, thought apparently not financially, he never fully reconciled with her though her towering and powerful character would appear in several of Albee’s plays, especially Agnes in “A Delicate Balance”. Albee would claim his parents didn’t know how to be parents and he didn’t know how to be a son. After writing “Three Tall Women” Albee claimed to never think of his mother again. This has not much to do with us as such except “Three Tall Women” is more than a character study, it is the use of theatre to encounter how life works in stages.
Back in 1993 I was on subway and there was this tall woman speaking to herself, this being New York I paid no further mind but then I looked over again and discovered it was the great American actress Marian Seldes, she must have been memorizing her lines to her role as “B” in the Off Broadway premiere of “Three Tall Women”. I saw it, an excellent portrayal. but it was an excellent production. The highly regarded Laurie Metcalf performs the role in the revival currently on Broadway. And, as Myra Carter did as “A” in 1994, Glenda Jackson overwhelms the play as “A”.
“A,” “B”,”C”. In the first act of “Three Tall Women” a 26 year old lawyer “C”, visits an elderly woman “A”,” and her caretaker, “B,” in A’s bedroom, to get her to sign some checks. “A” rambles, reminisces about her life, tells scabrous stories, and also tough stories about how in a world that made it very difficult for women, she managed to take care of her mother, her sister, her husband. though not her son who she breaks with. During another rambling story, “A” has a heart attack.
As Act Two opens, “A” is dead in the bed, surrounded by the woman at three different ages discussing her life. “A,” remains the woman at an older age though no longer affirmed, “B” becomes the woman at 52, and “C” the woman at 26 years of age. They discuss their life, marrying for money but to a sweet guy, having affairs, the husbands six year decline and death from prostate cancer, the break with her son, and the final and irrevocable decline and decay. Before the end, the son comes to pay his respect to his dead mother, and finally the three tall women discuss what was the happiest moments of their lives.
All three actresses are excellent, Alison Pill as “C” is significantly great in the weakest written role, a reactive role of growing brittleness. I’ve seen her several times in plays and films, but this is the first time I’ve noticed her: in the first act Pill is harsh in her condemnation of age but also imperial with long legs and a certainty of action. Laurie Metcalf, up for an Oscar for “Lady Bird” and a Tony for “A Doll’s House 2” is reaching a high point in her career and while she isn’t Marian, she plays the middle woman with fire in her eyes during the second act. But the play belongs to Glenda Jackson -one of the great actresses of the 1970s, she quit show biz to become a Labour Minister in the UK and fight Thatcherism. Glenda was a Member of Parliament for Hampstead and Kilburn from 1992–2010 and in office 9 April 1992 – 30 March 2015. Last year she performed on stage in the UK (as King Lear!) in the UK, and is now on Broadway. I saw Glenda on the West End in 1977 as the poet Stevie Smith and it confirmed her greatness. Whatever role Jackson performs there is a very English underlining power to her (she hated Margaret Thatcher but would have been vastly superior to Meryl Streep in the role), in “Women In Love,” in “The Music Lovers,” in “Sunday Bloody Sunday” she performs weakness with strength. At the start of “Three Tall Women” she performs physical frailty and mental decay with enormous strength of character. Whether being casually racist about black servants, or loathsome towards the world around her, she is a powerhouse in a losing battle. In the second act, Jackson is no longer decaying and at first, during act one, we are taken aback by how weak Jackson looks, we wonder if the years had caught up with her, in Act Two she has the shopgirl on steroids she has always had. Her voice strong and implacable and knowing, her self indictment complete. By the end of the play she has joined with “B” and “C” to complete the picture of a self, a person, seen in full. Not the villain that Albee might have portrayed her as, this woman was forced to, but also wanted to, control her world. She saved her family and her family resented her for it. She didn’t save her son, though he resented her anyway. At the end of the play, her final triumph was her son coming to say goodbye. “He didn’t for his father” she notes. This was a huge hit for Albee, just the construction alone made it deserving of a Pulitzer, the seeing a life first from the outside looking in, and then the inside looking in. The set pieces, where her husband puts a necklace round his erect penis and she refuses to fellate him, is spoken with such an intense match of realness and pain it stands as a moment in a life enshrined.
But if you take Albee’s autobiographical POV out, what you are left with is a version of how life is lived, how we grow and change: in the second act, Alison Pill’s “C” rails against the woman she would become, to no avail. What emerges is a biography of a woman we have no reason to care about except that Albee cares about her enough to write it. Life becomes a series of highs and lows before the inevitable end. Jackson’s great achievement here is showing the person beneath the crammed out layers of experience, the person filled out, the life as lived. If Albee wrote this to exorcise his adoptive mother he also gave her life an internal meaning not many people see.