THEATER REVIEW: Three Tall Women
Golden Theatre, New York, April 28, 2018
He based her on his mother. The cantankerous, mischievous, elegant dowager, 92 years old—or only 91, as she tells it—that leads Three Tall Women is Edward Albee’s invocation of the woman who never accepted him. He left home, like the son in the play; we can assume his being gay had something to do with it. (There’s one fleeting reference to walking in on him with others, but that’s all Albee gives about his queerness.) And possibly he never forgave her, at least in life. “A” never forgives her son, either. They reconcile when she’s older, when she needs him, but they never dig deep enough for absolution.
When we saw Three Tall Women in New York last month, someone commented exiting the theater how misogynistic Albee’s writing is. There’s certainly a mean streak running through the text. You sense how much he loathed his adoptive mother, the woman who inspired the character who becomes “A.” She recalls, in a ripping monologue, how her husband seduced her with a bracelet on his genitals—but no matter what, she couldn’t “do that” to please him. Never that. And it’s also true that our old woman’s memories mostly concern the men in her life: her husband of over forty years, and the son she’s ashamed of.
But I sense some compassion on this front. In the second, more abstract act, the two women attending “A” (who are “B” and “C”) become realizations of her younger selves, B at age 52 and C at a young 26. This is where Albee is able to probe a lifetime of joys and disappointments, allowing the younger women to wrestle with the events—often unpleasant—they haven’t experienced yet. For B at middle age, the thought of suffering through six years of cancer is too much to bear; but A has faced the loss and can be more matter-of-fact, more resigned to it with the passing of time. Her life, we understand, has been prescripted in the mold available to many women of her generation: to marry well, to produce children. If the latter is a failure, a source of shame, she has with time accepted this, too.
Joe Mantello’s Broadway production is elegant visually and bruising beneath. As the more conventional first act shifts into a surreal second act, where A becomes a figure watching over her physical body locked in a coma, Miriam Buether’s set transforms into a stunning room of glass and mirrors. The real is reflected in the unreal; we see both planes of existence at once–the corporeal and the spiritual.
And with that, Albee’s play moves from a light comedy of manners to a searing look at a woman’s ups and downs over her entire lived history. Alison Pill doesn’t gather much attention in the first half; Laurie Metcalf and Glenda Jackson are too high voltage. But Pill finds more in the 26-year-old younger self in the second half; wry and resolute, she thinks she understands much more than she possibly can. Of course, Metcalf and Jackson are both sensational, performers of vaudevillian charm and stinging wit. It’s almost embarrassing to hear the great MP Jackson giggling over her husband’s small erection, or giving in to the failing functions of her body.
But that’s what the play forces us to look toward. We become children again. Wiser, maybe, if we retain Jackson’s laser focus. But the end will come, no matter how loved or hated we are.