Joe Mantello’s production of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, at once fiendishly entertaining and appropriately grim, begins with Glenda Jackson making a meal of the word “old.” The legendary actress, on Broadway after a thirty-year absence, throws back her regal head and draws out the three letters until it’s practically decasyllabic. By doing so, she sets the tone for a surprisingly witty and poignant exploration of the ravages of time and age, and how the inevitabilities of life can creep up on even the most calculatingly conscious person. In her mouth, that single word contains the seven ages of man — or, in this case, woman.
Albee reduces the seven ages to three. The play’s first act, presented continuously here with the second, finds A (Jackson) living out her dotage in a deliciously ornate bedroom suite. (Miriam Buether designed the regal, opulent sets). A tough but fair caretaker (Laurie Metcalf), identified as B, minds her charge with hawk-like vigilance; she knows when A needs a pillow or a trip to the ensuite before even the old woman does. A third woman (Alison Pill) — you guessed it: C — appears as an emissary from A’s lawyers, vexed that she won’t return the documents that need signing or allow her representatives to handle her bills.
The three women are, of course, later revealed to be one and the same. Throughout his career, Albee loved to present people as fragmentary parts of the same whole: Peter and Jerry in The Zoo Story; The Wife and The Mistress in All Over; and even the parallel couples of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf fill out this criterion. But he probably never did it more explicitly than in Three Tall Women, and on the page, it exudes a level of archness and obviousness that can be off-putting.
The brilliance of Mantello’s staging comes from his acceptance of the play’s tonal imbalance. Like the characters representing one person at different points in her life, the text segues skittishly from humor to pathos to grief, sometimes in the same breath. Mantello and company lean into this style, never pushing for perfect unity in performance or presentation. The harmony comes through the discord.
The opening scenes unspool like a flawlessly calibrated farce, with Jackson cast as the grande dame. But instead of impeccably timed doors slamming, she lobs hints about the future to her two mirror-selves like so many Molotov cocktails. “Oh, she’ll learn,” she says of the skeptical C, still in the bloom of youth, when she gets to be so old. She brutally reminds B that she’s hired help, only in control as much as A will let her be. She’s casually racist, tossing off epithets with ease, and her voice drips with hatred as she dismisses her grown son, a gay man who abandoned the family after years of mistreatment. (This character, an authorial doppelgänger, is silently played by Joseph Medeiros in later scenes).
Jackson’s performance here is a stunning study in contrasts. Her accent hovers somewhere between patrician coolness and a working-class drawl — ideal for a character with a questionable social background. And her bearing vacillates between that of a proudly contrarian nonagenarian and a frightened child who fears she’s “doing in my panties.” Her eyes fill with terror at the indignity of soiling herself; a second later, she purposely breaks a glass, then dances around the stage with devil-may-care bravado. If our last days represent “a second childishness and mere oblivion,” as Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago, she embodies it.
Metcalf and Pill take a backseat here, while still contributing meaningfully to the proceedings. Metcalf uses her best asset — the impeccable comic timing she’s honed on stage and television for forty years — to lethal effect. She mocks both A and C mercilessly, but in the most sympathetic of ways; she laughs off A’s braggadocio and scoffs at C’s cluelessness. She believably fits the role of nursemaid without a hint of upper-crust élan, nicely contrasting Jackson’s world weariness.
In many ways, Pill’s only job is to serve as an avatar of youth, but she brings more to the role than that would suggest. This young woman doesn’t deal in ignorance — she projects an air of certainty. “I will not become you,” she tells A and B, and you’d believe her were it not for the living proof standing there breathing the same air. She honestly trusts that a person can change her future, refusing to acknowledge that we become different people as we age.
The play adopts a more serious tone in the final act, as the women become irrevocably one; Ann Roth costumes them in complementary purple gowns, with Jackson and Metcalf donning strands of pearls. (Pill, it seems, will earn her pearls later). The dialogue shifts between recriminations and grand pronouncements about the pleasures and tragedies of life, with much expressed and little learned. Metcalf excels here, devoid of her previous caretaker warmth; done up like a character from Dynasty, she spits venom as only one who’s young enough to remember the past but old enough to dread the future can. Even devoted followers of this versatile actress will likely be surprised by the depths of feeling she summons.
But Jackson has the last word, as she should. And although Mantello overlays her final monologue with Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel — the production’s one misstep — no musical cues are needed to understand the magnitude of the moment. Just as she begins the play by feasting on the word “old”, she ends it by barely choking out the word “stop.” And it feels as though someone has found a way to contain all the power of death inside a syllable.
Three Tall Women is preoccupied with death — Albee wrote it after the demise of his own mother, with whom he had a similarly complicated relationship. But this benchmark production showed me how much the famously mordant author had to say about life.