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A CurtainUp Review
Three Tall Women
By Elyse Sommer
But, for sure, there's nothing decrepit about 82-year-old Glenda Jackson portrayal of the oldest of Albee's tall women and her delivery of monster monologues that would challenge an actress at any age. Jackson, who interrupted her acclaimed acting career to serve in Great Britain's Parliament, made her stage comeback two years ago in a London production of as King Lear. It's a pleasure to have her back on Broadway, memorably tackling this equally difficult role's enormous physical and verbal demands.
For Albee this 1991 play (his third Pulitzer Prize winner) marked a comeback from a less than successful period. Now, Three Tall Women is not just a most welcome return to Broadway for Glenda Jackson, but also exemplifies how a more than a quarter century old play can have the freshness of a new play. Credit for this fresh feel must be spread around; that means director Joe Mantello, the brilliant designer Miriam Buether (Children & A Doll's House Part 2) and the two other tall women, Laurie Metcalf and Allison Pill. As B and C, Metcalf and Pill, both flex their powerhouse acting muscles to strongly impress in what amounts to double roles — as A's paid caretaker and a young lawyer trying to un-muddle her finances in the first act; and, after Albee throws down a brand-new deck of theatrical cards for the second act, smoothly stepping into the figures of A's deathbed dreams of herself at 26 and 60.
While the role model for A was the playwright's own unloving and unloved adoptive mother, the three ages at which women (or, for that matter, men) tend to reflect on the journey that leads all of us the inevitable final stop. As the years rush from one major stop in the road to the next basic questions with universal application surface: Who and what influences our youthful expectations? How do our actions as young adults shape how we see ourselves at the midpoint of life? And what does it all add up when we come to the end of life's journey?
The first act is a realistic rather un-Albee-ish set-up for the more interesting off-the-beaten path Albee turn of events that follow. That somewhat over an hour long act is largely a show piece for Glenda Jackson to reveal all the nuances of A's physical frailty and personality. We see a frightened and demented rich old woman who rejected her son but now complains that he doesn't visit her more (at the risk of being a spoiler, that stand-in for the author does make a couple upstage spectral appearances).
Weak as she is, A is still demanding, deplorably given to anti-Semitism and homophobia, yet was herself a victim of her mother's snobbery. She also has her touching and funny moments especially when in anecdotes about her love of horses and a rather bizarre sexual encounter with the man she married for money. romantic encounter. This would get a bit tedious if it weren't a chance to see Jackson show a woman gradually losing her faculties, vaguely remembering "being tall" and Eliza Dollittle-like repeatedly declaring that she was "a good girl."
In shifting from naturalistic storytelling into nightmare fantasy with just a pause rather than an intermission, director Mantello has perceptively underscored the way we tend to find ourselves slipping almost without pause from youth to middle age to death's door. Miriam Buether has created an aptly luxurious setting with deceptively calm pale blue walls, elegantly furnished with upholstery and a huge bed. In keeping with Albee's surprise shift in style, she has added her own sleight-of-hand, so that we see A's bed (occupied by a mannequin A) through a transparent back wall that's a stark mirror of the blurry way most of us view death.
To help Metcalf and Pill believably morph into A's younger personas, Ann Roth has dressed them in lavender dresses to match that of the now less disabled A. The subtle lighting and sound design of Paul Gallo and Fitz Patton further support this stunning transition. Despite being even darker, this second act is still remarkably full of Albee's caustic humor.
I saw Three Tall Women right after a second reading of How It All Began by novelist Penelope Lively, who like fellow Brit Glenda Jackson is still at the top of her game. My revisiting that 2012 book was a particularly apt happenstance. The always lively Lively's plot is triggered by a retired woman's still active life being derailed by a broken hip, as a result of being mugged. While unaffected mentally, more likeable than A and not quite as close to the end of her story, this woman does have to grapple with the decreased mobility and independence that come with age. One more reason Mr. Albee's very personal story of a woman maneuvering herself through the various stages of life is universal.
For more about Edward Albee and links to plays by him reviewed at Curtainup, check out the Albee backgrounder in our Playwrights Album.
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Three Tall Women by Edward Albee
Directed by Joe Mantello
Cast: Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf, and Allison Pill.
Scenic Design: Miriam Buether
Costume Design: Ann Roth
Lighting Design: Paul Gallo
Sound Design: Fitz Patton
Hair & Makeup Design: Campbell Young Associates
Stage Manager: William Joseph Barnes
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, without an intermission
Golden Theatre 252 West 45th Street
From 2/27/18; opening 3/29/18; closing Lighting Design
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 3/31/18 press matinee
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