Edward Albee won his third Pulitzer prize for this 1991 play. Belatedly it now makes its Broadway debut a year and a half after his death. Following last year’s West End revivals of his early 1960s masterpiece Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and his provocative 2000 play The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, this magisterial revival confirms what a bold and formally inventive playwright he was.
Three Tall Women is unarguably his most personal work. Like his own version of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, it puts his own adopted mother under a fierce but also ultimately surprisingly compassionate spotlight while revealing why he walked out on his home as a young man.
A haunting and mellow memory play, it’s an intimate, deeply etched portrait of a woman at three stages of her life: as a young woman of 26, a middle-aged 52 year old, and an old woman of 92 (though she claims she’s actually 91), slipping into dementia.
Albee has said that the writing of the play was “a kind of exorcism. And I didn’t end up any more fond of the woman after I finished it than when I started.”
Through the captivating performances of Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill, playing the role with angry defiance, weary disappointment and eager expectation respectively, the play provides a gripping, taunting picture of the life decisions that shape who we become.
These are three actors of real stage pedigree who have also earned above-the-marquee status for their film work. As the ageing matriarch, Jackson follows her King Lear for the Old Vic with another stunning performance, one equally full of rage as of helplessness. She has a stern, formidable countenance, but to see her face fall into confusion is truly moving. Her phenomenal voice, with a lightly worn patrician American accent, is full of grace but also grit.
Metcalf has long been an American stage great, as well being recently Oscar-nominated for Lady Bird, and she’s mesmerising in her brittle, wounded intensity as the middle-aged woman, her pain as palpable as her disappointment, looking on in wary horror at what she will one day become. Alison Pill is both poised and poignant, morphing from a legal assistant who comes to sort out her papers to embodying the character’s younger self. Albee’s play elides effortlessly between each of their statuses, and in Joe Mantello’s beautifully calibrated production these three tall women seamlessly become one.
It’s an acting masterclass, but it also contains a coup de theatre that it would be wrong to reveal. Suffice to say that Miriam Buether’s handsome bedroom set – all cream and soft furnishings – turns out to conceal its own harrowing character.