Unless you have a raging fever, an ice bath wouldn’t seem like a particularly pleasurable experience. And yet “Three Tall Women,” Edward Albee’s late-career masterpiece being revived on Broadway, could be called an ice bath of a play, from which you emerge not just stimulated but somehow uplifted — an inch or two taller, spiritually speaking.
Bleak the play certainly is, as it examines with blunt honesty and raw intimacy a woman’s life as a cascade of lost illusions, betrayals and disappointments, with the occasional glimmer of pleasure here and there. And yet, as performed by three sterling actors of three generations — Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill — Albee’s biting analysis of the dark undertow of human experience, the gradual awakening to the knowledge that life’s progress does not necessarily lead to serene contentment, has a bracing power that stiffens your spine, even as you blink away tears.
Jackson, the two-time Oscar winner who returned to acting just recently — playing King Lear, no less! — after a long detour into politics, shows absolutely no diminution in her command of the stage. As the central character, a woman of either 91 (as she querulously insists) or 92 (as one of her lawyers, played by Pill, petulantly retorts), who whines and wheedles, upbraids and commands with the imperious vigor of a woman half her age, Jackson gives a performance of astounding vitality, complexity and humor.
In the play’s first act (written in two, it is performed here without an intermission), we find Jackson’s character in her plush bedroom — all silken surfaces and elegant moldings, as designed by Miriam Buether — accompanied by her caretaker, played by Metcalf, and the young lawyer, who has come to see about a stack of unattended bills. (The roles in the script are denoted A, B and C, dry designations I am avoiding.) Those bills are waved away with disdain by the lady un–bountiful, who sees thievery everywhere, and claims to be practically penniless, although her surroundings argue otherwise.
What is really being stolen from her, and what causes her to fall alternately into tempests of vituperation and tear-trimmed bouts of self-pity, is life itself. And even as she reminisces, with ragged focus, about her hardly unblemished life — the alcoholic sister, the mother whom she came to hate, the loveless marriage, the lone child (a gay son) who walked out of her life many years before and rarely visits — Jackson exudes the savage energy of a woman who intends to keep raging against the dying of the light until she breathes her last. Of course, as Jackson’s piercing, insightful performance makes clear, beneath her squalls of anger is the agony of a child in the dark, the night-light on the fritz, hungry for comfort and terrified that none will come.
This being an Albee play, none does. When Jackson’s character must hustle to the bathroom — Jackson captures in precise detail her infirmity — Metcalf dryly upbraids Pill’s callow young lawyer for her naiveté, her revulsion at the depredations of time on the mind and body. “Oh stop it!” she expostulates. “It’s downhill from sixteen! For all of us!” That starkly funny remark, delivered with a lacerating sharpness by Metcalf, sums up the play’s rueful essence. (It’s a theme Albee would return to in another late masterwork, “The Play About the Baby.”)
That essence is amplified during the ingenious second act. After a brief pause, the curtain rises on the same bedroom, now seen from a different perspective, with the back wall now a mirror reflecting the audience — a rather heavy-handed choice from the director, Joe Mantello, whose touch is otherwise subtler. (We get it, the play is not about the singular life experience of a rich, cranky old woman, but “all of us.”) Jackson’s character is now essentially comatose, and the three women now assembled represent her at different stages in her life. (Left unexplained is how the American accents of Pill and Metcalf became the notably British one of Jackson, but let it pass.)
Pill, swathed in a beautiful floral-print dress (Ann Roth’s costumes are sublime), is the woman at age 26, Metcalf the same woman at twice that age, and Jackson representing her in old age, but mystically restored to full intellectual and physical vigor. Here, Pill and Metcalf move from the background to share the foreground with Jackson, as the women trade sometimes barbed, sometimes sympathetic revelations about the life they (she?) lived, from different perspectives.
Pill’s character adamantly denies she could ever become the hardened woman of 52 that she sees before her, let alone the aged woman lying unresponsive in bed (we see just the back of her head). The bloom is still on the rose of life for this young woman, and Pill expresses with a moving tenderness the natural bewilderment — and fluttering fear — that anyone of her age might experience when coming face to face with a decades-older version of his or her self.
Ensconced in middle age, Metcalf gently tries to explain just how time and hard experience — how life, in other words — inevitably brings change to the cooling heart as well as to the calcifying body. Metcalf, who has become one of the country’s very finest actors in any medium, perfectly captures the combination of wisdom and wry rue that represents the character at life’s midpoint, the dreams of youth thoroughly dispelled, but still with the strength, and curiosity if not precisely hope, to battle through what may yet come.
And Jackson’s character, with the full range of her life experience to relate, brings out the woman’s rounded humanity, as she acknowledges that the failings in her life were sometimes her own doing. She, more than her younger selves, can view life with equanimity, the fire in her veins (and loins) having diminished.
In his introduction to the printed version, Albee acknowledged the obvious: The play was written as a final reckoning with his own, wealthy late mother, with whom he had a famously frosty relationship (or non-relationship). It is certainly his most personal play.
But that’s not to suggest there is even a frisson of sentimentality present. “Three Tall Women” is unflinching in its depiction of the painful ravages of experience, but its strength resides precisely in that clarity and truthfulness, the studious exclusion of false feeling. And its beauty — for all its dark asperity it is a beautiful work — resides in the compassion with which Albee regards the woman at its center. In her recognition of life’s hardships and transient joys, and her acceptance of its natural and perhaps even welcome end, she has a towering dignity that demands respect, and in Jackson’s practiced hands, perhaps even a little awe.
“Three Tall Women” opened at the Golden Theater on Thurs., March 29, 2018.
Creative: Written by Edward Albee; Directed by Joe Mantello; Scenic Design by Miriam Buether; Costume Design by Ann Roth; Lighting Design by Paul Gallo; Sound Design by Fitz Patton.
Producers: Produced by Scott Rudin, Barry Diller, Eli Bush, The John Gore Organization, James L. Nederlander, Candy Spelling, Len Blavatnik, Rosalind Productions, Inc., Eric Falkenstein, Peter May, Patty Baker, Diana DiMenna, Wendy Federman & Heni Koenigsberg and Benjamin Lowy & Adrian Salpeter.
Cast: Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf, Alison Pill.