Friday, March 30, 2018

THREE TALL WOMEN: Glenda Jackson Hits One Out of the Ballpark in Revival of Edward Albee's Funny-Vicious Play

Even if the only Edward Albee work you are familiar with is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, you will have a pretty good idea that the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright has a way with funny-vicious dialog that comes as close to drawing blood as you can with words alone.  

But if you think George and Martha are a nasty pair, wait until you spend 100 minutes or so in the company of the noxious old lady (apparently a stand-in for Albee's own adoptive mother) at the center of Three Tall Women, which is being given a stunning revival at Broadway's John Golden Theater.  

The play, written in two acts but performed here with only a brief pause between Act I and Act II, is a reflection (or perhaps a justification) of why Albee left home at the age of 17 with barely a backward glance for two decades. 

Of course, it is necessary to take everything with a grain of salt since we only get Albee's version of things, but if the character referred to as "A" in Three Tall Women is even remotely similar to the real Frances Albee, she must have been a barrel of laughs to live with, only marginally better than, say, a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

Photo by Brigitte Lacombe
This production stars Glenda Jackson as "A." And if she doesn't walk off with a Best Actress Tony Award for this, I'll eat  well, not my hat, but maybe a piece of cake because no one can predict these things with absolute certainty. 

But Tony or not, Jackson is brilliantly odious playing a wealthy nonagenarian women whose greatest pleasures consist of (a) being the center of attention at all times and (b) spewing venom about everyone and everything in her life. 

This is more than just the misery of old age, for which she is quite possibly justified, as evidenced by a loss of mental clarity and bodily function, not to mention a broken arm that can never heal.  When poet Dylan Thomas wrote that those nearing the end of their lives should "rage, rage against the dying of the light," he could have been advising Jackson's character. 

Few could rage nearly as well as she spews out a litany of her many grudges and complaints. She is the King Lear of old ladies. (Interestingly enough, King Lear was the very role Jackson took on at London's Old Vic in 2016 when she returned to acting after serving two decades as a Member of Parliament; I'd bet a good couple of bucks that we'll see her in that role on Broadway not long after Three Tall Women ends its run, especially if she wins the Tony.) 

You might be able to guess from the title, that Ms. Jackson is not alone on the stage.  She is joined by two other women. Alison Pill plays "C" and Laurie Metcalf plays "B." 

In Act I, these are three distinct women. Ms. Pill's character   works for Ms. Jackson's law firm and has come to straighten out some unpaid bills and other paperwork the older woman has neglected out of spite, through forgetfulness, or a combination of both. Ms. Metcalf's role is that of a paid caregiver, a part the highly skilled actress takes on with careful attention to facial expression, shrugs, and other physical manifestations of her generally cheery helpfulness in the wake of the many challenges her job brings.   
Alison Pill, Glenda Jackson, and Laurie Metcalf
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Unexpectedly, but welcomely, there are also lots of dark, comically absurd lines in Act I that will leave you laughing, even as you sense the gathering storm that unleashes its full fury in Act II.  

At the end of Act I, Ms. Jackson has lain down on the bed that dominates the set - an upscale bedroom designed by Miriam Buether. And just before the break, she falls silent, the victim of a stroke.

After a brief pause, we move into Act II and the old woman's final journey into night.  The set has been rearranged, with a large mirror dominating the back wall. It is undoubtedly symbolic of "reflection," since that's what happens for the rest of the play. Ms. Pill, Ms. Metcalf, and Ms. Jackson have been rearranged like the furnishings, so that they are now all aspects of the same person: the three tall women of the title. Here, the old woman is reflecting on her mostly miserable life through the three women. The youngest is 26, the middle one is 52, and the oldest is Ms. Jackson at somewhere in her 70s (for one thing, the sling she wore in Act I is gone, and she actually does look younger). 

The "Three Tall Women"
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Ms. Pill's character is there mostly to listen to what her life will become as she ages. As painted by Ms. Metcalf and Ms. Jackson, it's not a pretty picture. Yet, while it all sounds as gloomy as can be, in the hands of these three splendid actresses, and with Albee's near-perfect writing and fine directing by Joe Mantello, Three Tall Women stands tall in its own right as one of the finest productions of an Albee play to grace the Broadway stage. 


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