Last time Glenda Jackson played Broadway, she was goading Christopher Plummer to slaughter King Duncan and seize the Scottish crown. No, I didn’t see it. I had just graduated from high school in New England, ignorant of what dramatic thrills were afoot 300 miles south at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. Now I have a taste of what I missed. After three decades and a stint in the English Parliament, Jackson has returned to raven up the role of A, the dying rich woman who rages in the shifting center of Edward Albee’s darkly exhilarating Three Tall Women. From an 81-year-old performer, I’ve rarely seen this much punch, zest and utter vitality. Albee’s morbidly engrossing study of mothers, dying and the accidents of personality elevates a spring season dominated by braindead franchise musicals and too few plays of substance.
Joe Mantello (also readying The Boys in the Band for May) directs a sumptuous and piercing Broadway debut of this 1994 play. Three Tall Women ran for a year and a half, first at the Vineyard Theatre, then the Promenade, kicking off an Albee renaissance after more than a decade of critical and commercial disfavor. The play earned Albee his third Pulitzer and cleared the way for Lincoln Center Theater’s superlative revival of A Delicate Balance and other Broadway projects.
The current production is alluringly deluxe and starry, partnering Jackson with the quicksilver sad-clown expertise of Laurie Metcalf (A Doll’s House, Part 2) and the cool, coltish Alison Pill. They are the three vertically advantaged ladies of the title, appearing in the first act as a dying, spiteful A (Jackson); her dogged, fiftyish caregiver, B (Metcalf); and a young lawyer, C (Pill), trying to wrestle A’s accounts into order. In the second act, the three reappear in flowing floral prints (by Ann Roth), now manifestations of the bedridden A at three stages of life: youth, middle age and moribund elderly years.
Miriam Buether, true to Albee’s stage directions, designs a lavish, eggshell-blue boudoir in the French style – lots of lace and pillows and fancy vases on display. After the first act and a brief curtain drop, Buether adds a spectral double of the room, replacing the upstage wall with a floor-to-ceiling semi-reflective surface, through which we see the bedroom and A (now portrayed by another actress) on her deathbed. It’s like we’ve gone through the looking glass and we’re gazing at reality through the veil of death. Mantello shrewdly cuts the intermission; now it plays through for a brisk 105 minutes. This makes the “absorption” of the women into A’s consciousness and the transformation of the space more powerful and disturbing.
Jackson, Metcalf and Pill make an oddly matched trio – posh British bile, Midwestern pluck and blond poise – but that’s not a criticism. In fact, casting three women who could plausibly be the same person at different ages would work against the central mystery Albee explores: How do we become the person we are (or appear to be)? Is identity perhaps the product of self-deception and trauma? As an adopted child who disliked his parents and couldn’t escape home fast enough, Albee forever questioned the reality of families, babies and any stable, unified sense of self. In Three Tall Women, extreme old age prompts A to see herself as a separate entity. Dying gets her to the point “where you can think about yourself in the third person without being crazy,” she says. “I’ve waked up in the morning, and I’ve thought, well, now she’s waking up.”
This late speech and many others are delivered with glittering intensity and restless intelligence by the triumphant Jackson, whose A is by turns pathetic, savage and goofily girlish. This won’t be the only review to marvel about how the 81-year-old Brit still has it. She snarls, bites, spits those elegant strings of Albee acid across the stage, and generally gives her co-stars a run for their money. How does Jackson do it? How has she ever done it? Over the decades in movies, we’ve come to love and admire this fearless actress. She has feral beauty and an unnerving directness, and yet there’s always something bruised, burning, underneath her most bourgeois characters. I should add in fairness that Metcalf and Pill are quite good in their parts. Metcalf’s exacting comic realism and Pill’s doll-like restraint complement Jackson’s crumbling-diva turn quite well. (Others have noted that C is a thankless part – somewhat true – but Pill has lovely moments seducing the audience.)
For those not familiar with Albee’s work or his thematic obsessions, it helps to know that Three Tall Women was inspired by the playwright’s adoptive mother, Frances Albee. Apparently, she was selfish, bigoted, cruel and did a good job of driving away her sullen son. Albee borrows other facts from his biography. Like A’s husband, his father had a glass eye and was considerably shorter than his wife. There’s a grotesque marital anecdote that A shares about how her husband proffered a diamond bracelet on his erect “pee pee.” I leave it to curious readers to do the research on that one.
In his introduction to the published play (which, unlike his other works, was dedicated to no one), Albee insists that Three Tall Women was not an act of revenge on his mother. It was instead an act of turning truth into fiction and thus exorcising it from his consciousness. Whether or not you believe that, one thing is sure: Glenda Jackson, elegantly savage and unforgettable, will not go gently into you know what.
David Cote is a theater critic, journalist, playwright and opera librettist based in New York.