Three Tall Legends: My Review of Edward Albee's Classic Play
"You are at your happiest when you stop. Just Stop [to appreciate life]."* This wise observation concludes the play Three Tall Women by Edward Albee, currently playing on Broadway at the Golden Theatre. The line is the last word in a discussion between three characters named A, B, and C, a group of women who all represent the same woman at ages ninety-two, fifty-two, and twenty-six, respectively. Having suffered a stroke, this woman manifested as three different actresses (Glenda Jackson as A, Laurie Metcalf as B, and Allison Pill as C) has her three different selves trapped together inside her subconscious where they discuss and debate the regrets, challenges, and relationships that have happened in the course of their shared life. Most of what they have to say is not pretty: the conversation consists of tales of an unfulfilling marriage, a failed relationship with a hated son, and a copious amount of other disappointments. But nonetheless, the discussion is honest, raw, and real, and is a candid portrait of what the life of a woman really looks like. Their conversation is fascinating to watch: the youngest woman (C) is full of questions about how her life is going to turn out, the middle-aged character (B) is filled with disappointment about the way her life unfolded, and the oldest character (A) is sorrowfully accepting of life's failures, and challenges. And although all these women are at different stages of their shared life, what ultimately unites them is their uncertainty about life, and their deep desire for love, fulfillment, and attention in their personal lives. These characters' interactions and observations make for a moving play filled with wise and humorous observations about the rocky path that life can be.
And Edward Albee himself could not have wished for a better production. The acting in Three Tall Women is first class: the actresses deliver raw, dynamic powerhouse performances that resonate deeply with the audience. The standout performer, however, is Glenda Jackson. After a twenty-two year hiatus from acting (during which she was a member of the British Parliament), Glenda Jackson is back on Broadway, giving a master class of a performance. She plays the bitter, cantankerous character A with verve and oodles of personality. She holds nothing back: when she whines about her frail state of being, A's voice wails throughout the theatre like a young child not getting her way. Jackson switches from naughty, child-like behavior to refined, understated vulnerability at the drop of a hat. She also always carries herself with a majestic dignity developed doing decades of Shakespeare. It is one of the most honest, most powerful performances I have seen on stage in a while, and she will certainly be a contender when it comes to the Tony Awards.
Supporting Glenda Jackson are fine performances by Allison Pill and Laurie Metcalf. Metcalf brings her trademark humor and down-home sincerity to the role of B. She mimics Jackson's carriage and speech patterns rather well, and her expressive brown eyes reveal the pain, and disappointment character B has endured throughout her life. Metcalf is an inherently expressive performer; her emotions pulse throughout every fiber of her being, and resonate powerfully throughout the theatre. It is as if the audience is really feeling her emotions instead of just watching them on stage. This type of talent is a reminder of why we go to the theatre to experience performance in real time. TV and film is great, but nothing matches the visceral, unfiltered power of a live performance like Metcalf's.
Allison Pill does a fine job of keeping up with these two powerhouse actresses, bringing a grace and youthful charm to the youngest version of the woman. Her questions about the future are delivered with an earnestness that is touching, and she has a noble bearing and carriage that match Glenda Jackson's majestic presence very well. She also has clear speech, and excellent posture, two qualities that are sorely lacking in young actresses. These qualities may seem like small things, but they are attributes that can make a good performance a great one. Playing opposite great thespians like Metcalf and Jackson, Allison Pill has proved she can play ball in the big leagues. I predict that she has a bright future ahead of her on Broadway.
Joe Mantello is the masterful director at the helm of this production. And he lives up to his stellar reputation: the staging is crisp, and well thought-out, giving clarity to a rather abstract show concept. The show's pace never slows, and develops a strong momentum towards the end that is almost electric. The fast pace that he has established is important, as it gives some life to some of the script's duller moments in the beginning. Set designer Miriam Buether has created a plush, appealing set that has a mirror effect which masterfully portrays the woman's subconscious to the audience. Costume designer Ann Roth has also designed beautiful outfits for the three actresses. Toward the end, each actress wears a purple dress, each in a different shade. The costumes' similar but distinctly different shades convey the characters' unity and their differences (based on their respective life phases) beautifully, and brought the story more fully to life for the audience.
Three Tall Women, however, is not a perfect play. There are a couple of issues with the script. The first half goes on too long, getting lost in a series of petty arguments that are pointless and do not really contribute to the show's main idea. The show's main conflict and reason for existence are also introduced about halfway into the show. If you come into the show not knowing anything about it, it is thus difficult to understand where the show is going. The main character is also kind of undefined: beside her failed relationships with her son and husband, we do not really know much about her, such as her name, her likes, dislikes, etc. While this vagueness contributes to the universality of the show's message, it might make the woman more relatable to know more specific things about her. But besides these issues, Three Tall Women has a unique, original concept, and a powerful message about the struggles of life's various phases. It is a timeless, innovative piece, and I am thrilled to see it finally get a Broadway debut.
I have a feeling that in the decades to come, I will be bragging at cocktail parties about having seen Three Tall Women on Broadway. It is a terrific play with three legendary actresses performing at the top of their game. People lament about the dearth of quality productions on Broadway, but seeing a production like this restores my faith in the Main Stem. Scott Rudin deserves a big fat wet kiss for bringing such a top-notch show to the Great White Way. Next time I see him, I will give him one.
*The following quote is a paraphrase.
© 2018 Mark Nimar