Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, in which a nonagenarian revisits events of her life refracted through both her own dementia and the differing recollections of her younger selves, is a not-quite-memory play filled with regret, resentment, entitlement, various bodily indignities — and it is, as the old joke goes, all over much too quickly.
Having its Broadway premiere nearly a quarter-century after its Off-Broadway debut, Three Tall Women is far from an easy evening of theater, despite being a swift, intermission-less hour-and-a-half. In the first act a woman in her 90s (played by Glenda Jackson and identified in the program only as “A,”), strong of will but failing of mind, is tended to by a woman in her 50s (Laurie Metcalf, “B”) and visited, for vague legal reasons, by a woman in her 20s (Alison Pill, “C”). The text, by turns poignant and funny, can also be, like Jackson’s character, prickly and distant.
The play won Albee his third Pulitzer Prize, perhaps more as career recognition and to make up for giving no 1963 award for drama at all, rather than honoring his breakthrough Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. And yet many of the hallmarks of great Albee — pitch black humor, verbal takedowns, delightfully indulgent cynicism — are initially in short supply here. There are laughs, but he ekes them out of pee jokes. (Pill’s character has a shock of realization that she is sitting in the incontinent woman’s favorite chair.) Then there is a sex story that Jackson’s character shares involving a valuable bracelet, her naked husband, and… nevermind. Yes, you’ll laugh. As you do, her speech turns dark: the game and the jewels are revealed to be a more traumatic than hilarious memory.
Woven throughout A’s reminiscences is her complaint that her son, having ended a long estrangement, doesn’t visit often enough. Albee, who died in 2016, had said that the fractured relationship was based on that of his own with his adopted mother. “I didn’t want to write her as a b—-,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2008. “I wanted to end up with an accurate portrait.”
The son, uncredited and with no dialogue, turns up in the second half, when the play takes a more interesting turn: The three actresses now portray one woman at different stages in her life, and right away youthful hope slams into long-held resignation. Director Joe Mantello appears to have a lot more fun with this conceit, which is, by far, the more engaging. (The set, depicting A’s lush bedroom suite, does something too clever here: The back wall becomes a mirror, which nicely echoes the play’s theme of reflection, but also, distractingly, literally reflects — hello, fellow audience members!)
Young “C,” having displayed little empathy for the old woman, now realizes she will become her. This is not a case of “if I had known what would happen, I would take steps to change it” because here, change is not possible; she must live through what has already taken place. Put-upon and generationally sandwiched “B,” is still in the midst of grudges, but professes to have the most enviable perspective. By the time A trounces that idea with an inarguable proclamation, the show is suddenly ending.
It is an imperfect play, but there are two excellent reasons to see Three Tall Women: Jackson and Metcalf. Following a 23-year hiatus from acting in favor of a career as a Labour MP in Britain’s Parliament, Jackson’s return to Broadway would be notable merely for the fact of it. But two decades of battling Thatcherism and its legacy took none of the sheen off her stage presence — she remains ferocious, and a delight to watch at work. Metcalf, fresh from a deservedly celebrated turn in the film Lady Bird (and a Tony win last year for A Doll’s House, Part 2), is a fine match for the imposing Jackson, and makes that task look effortless. The determined Pill has the least forgiving role; she must hold the stage with two towering presences as her “C” is verbally swatted about by “A” and “B.” It is also worth noting the pleasure in seeing an all-female show that is by design of the playwright, not a gimmick of casting. Jackson, in particular, is such a gift to have back on stage, it is no wonder we are left wanting more. B