A (Glenda Jackson) is 91 or 92 years old depending on who one believes. She lives beautifully, attended by a sardonic, endlessly patient attendant, B (Laurie Metcalf). Currently, the nonagenarian is being visited by testy young lawyer C (Alison Pill) who’s frustrated about lack of cooperation in managing the rich woman’s affairs. (The A, B, C is irritating, but thankfully used only in the script.) A has a broken arm that won’t heel, is incontinent and shaky on her feet.
The meticulously turned out old woman also suffers from onset dementia, fading in and out of the present and past; manipulative, obstreperous, self-contradictory, childish; prone to sudden anger or tears. One of the things A clearly recalls is how her youthful, statuesque height appealed. (She’s appreciably shrunken). “Why am I talking about this?” she asks rhetorically. “Because you want to,” B responds calmly. “Yes!” exclaims A, pounding the arm of her chair. C is nonplussed.
Glenda Jackson and Laurie Metcalf; Laurie Metcalf
Act I of the play features that drifting. A talks about horses, sex, meeting and snagging her husband, her sister and mother. “How much did you steal?!” she suddenly turns on and accuses B. “I went down and took all the silver bowls and put them under my skirt…” her aid retorts. The two have an understanding. Judging by what she says, you’d think A was Anti-Semitic and as bigoted as they come- “Wops, Kikes, Niggers…” C is appalled, but B assures her it doesn’t mean anything….just the way she was raised.
Glenda Jackson’s A is gloriously patrician, imperious, indomitable, bitter, self satisfied. Some transitions occur with suddenness, others like seeping watercolor. None seem false. Jackson has a Shakespearean roar. She moves as if brittle, leaning hard on her helper. Moments of mischief glisten.
Laurie Metcalf’s personification is quick, jaded, capable. She seems unmoved, stoically taking everything in stride. Matcalf is a master of the wry one line response, implicit eyebrow raising. And focus.
Alison Pill has little to do in this part. Nonetheless, her surprise and bristling are palpable. One might think the lawyer would spend less time observing and, having found missing papers, more time going through them. (A directorial decision.)
Act II – in quick unbroken succession – finds the women all embodying A at various times in her life. C is 26, B is 52, A is her own age. Having experienced a stroke, her body lies behind them. A, B, and C inform and correct one another vis a vis reality as it was in each one’s time. C “I’m a good girl” swears never to become B, having to go through that future. B “Why did I marry him?” in turn, is in denial about aging into A. A simply laughs. “You are both such children.” The first person becomes “us.”
Though they bear no resemblance, each actor is a theatrical force in her own right. Pill’s Act II C is gorgeously naive, shocked and defiant. Metcalf’s pragmatic, already weary B shows A’s underpinnings. A is bemused, ready.
Edward Albee’s timeless Three Tall Women won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. Everyone has imagined confronting her/his younger or older self, about what one might say or hear. The piece examines perceptions on the journey as well as final days. Its moral? Perhaps: Be Here Now.
Director Joe Mantello is the perfect steersman for this mercurial show. Characters are definitive in time, small business realistic, attitudes clear. Dropping the fourth wall in Act II creates stirring in-your-face atmosphere.
Miriam Buether’s splendid Set Design offers simultaneous perspectives. I fail to see anything constructive about mounting a jarring, neon border around the proscenium, however. Otherwise Paul Gallo’s Lighting is subtly effective.
Costumes by veteran Ann Roth seem to flag in Act II when neither B’s nor C’s dresses are sufficiently flattering or stylish to reflect A’s well heeled life.
Photos by Brigitte Lacombe
Opening: Alison Pill, Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf
Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women
Directed by Joe Mantello
252 West 45th Street