A great play in a superb production: what theater-lover could ask for more? Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women is currently on Broadway with a dream cast: Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf, and Alison Pill. This tragicomic meditation on growing old is not to be missed.
At the start, the magnificent Glenda Jackson plays “A,” a frail 91 (or 92?)-year-old woman; she is rich, cantankerous, losing her memory, and close to incontinence. Take note: She is wearing something long and lavender. “B,” her caretaker, played with all of Laurie Metcalf’s comic genius, is tolerant and kind, ironical and witty, anticipating every next mishap; she is wearing comfy pants and a shirt, unperturbed by the calamities of ageing. “C,” played by the lovely Alison Pill, is a young, shockingly rude lawyer; she is wearing a navy suit and very high heels. Ann Roth’s perfect costume design will reveal the play, if only we pay attention.
And if we’re paying close attention, we hear the “we” at the start of act 2, and the realization creeps up on us that these three tall women are really one woman at different stages of her life. Do people change? Is identity stable?
C’s unthinking cruelty at 26, unaware that A is what awaits her — awaits all of us, if we live long enough — is transformed in act 2 (Joe Mantello’s fine direction wisely erases the intermission between the script’s two acts). Pill is now wearing a feminine lavender print dress, and she is all teary, with tremulous hope that “the best is yet to come — Please?” At 52, B’s Metcalf is wearing another lavender print, this one both figure-flattering and matronly; she is now an intolerant, angry woman, raging about the son she threw out of the house long ago when she discovered he was homosexual. A, now elegant and no longer helpless, in a long lavender gown with ropes of pearls, reminisces about her husband and her lovers. The looks and glances exchanged — some mocking, some knowing, some conspiratorial — are a drama in themselves as these formidable actors show us the inner life of a dying woman.
The rhythms of each actor’s speech create another sub-drama, although Jackson’s ability to lend meaning to every syllable — what a voice! — dominates the play, as it should. And what Metcalf can do with a pause: Commenting on the “view” middle age gives her, she says, “It opens up whole new vistas [pause] of decline, of obsolescence, of peculiarity … ”
The set designed by Miriam Buether, combined with Paul Gallo’s subtle lighting, provides first a realistic, “wealthy” (Albee’s specifications) bedroom. The mystery grows in act 2, when the back wall becomes a mirror — or is it a window into the past?
Three Tall Women. Through June 24 at the John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th Street, New York.