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Theatre in Review: Three Tall Women (Golden Theatre)

Glenda Jackson. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

"I. Am. Here!" So says Glenda Jackson, delivering each word with enough force to drive piles into the foundation of the Golden Theatre. Really, she doesn't need to assert herself; she has had us from the start, when she announced, as if to the air, "I'm ninety-one." (In fact, her character is ninety-two, but who's counting?) Jackson is A, living in splendid isolation, waiting for the end, grumbling ever more loudly as age has its ruthless way with her. An unholy terror, she barks out bulletins of dissatisfaction every couple of minutes, offering baleful prophecies to those who would beard her in her lair. (That lair, by the way, is a stunning cream-and-green French provincial bedroom, designed by Miriam Buether, which tells you plenty about its occupant and her way of life.) A is at that point where she requires assistance to carry out the simplest of tasks. A trip to the bathroom becomes a peril-filled trek, with her repeatedly muttering "You're hurting me!" to her caretaker before erupting in fury and tears. A few minutes later, she emerges from the bathroom, smiling and triumphant, announcing, "I broke the glass and now she has to clean it up!"

A naturally regal presence -- well, she did play Elizabeth I, more than once -- her hair pressed into marcelled waves, her face chalk-white with makeup that doesn't hide her many lines, one arm supported by a sling (the result of a fall), Jackson's A is a true lioness in winter. Petulance is her natural state and her voice could cut through iron, but there's something wary, even fearful, in those dark, dark eyes. She knows what is coming -- she is not now, nor has she ever been, a fool -- and she doesn't like it one bit. "You want something," she says, speaking to the shade of the son she mostly loathes. "Well, you just wait. You'll get what's coming to you." Complaining about being robbed blind by "the stores, the markets, that little Jew who makes my furs"; rambling on about the time she knew Norma Shearer (the name comes to her, eventually, after a guessing game that exhausts everyone else in the room); or turning to a disapproving interloper and saying, "You don't think anything is funny, do you?" she is a real handful for those who are paid to attend to her. "Grisly, but fascinating," is her companion's summation, and that's just about right.

Part of the considerable thrill of seeing Three Tall Women is the mere fact of Jackson's presence; she has been away for so long, pursuing a distinguished career in politics, that we had no reason to expect that she would ever return. That she remains as accomplished as ever -- delivering a thoroughly venomous grande dame, yet hinting at reserves of humanity -- is a delightful bonus. Listen to her reminisce about her marriage -- an arrangement of convenience rather than an affair of passion or love -- especially the night that her husband entered her bedroom, presenting to her an offering of jewelry on his erect member. Jackson recounts the episode with plenty of salty amusement, the laughter suddenly strangled when she adds, uncomfortably, that she denied him a specific sexual act -- whether out of revulsion or discomfort or because it abrogated the rigid terms of their relationship is left teasingly unclear. In a flash, a loveless marriage -- an entire life without sustaining affection-- is laid bare.

Adding to the icy amusement is the presence of Laurie Metcalf as B, A's caretaker, who has seen it all and is beyond surprise. Armed with the sharpest comic timing in the business, Metcalf finds laughs -- all of them entirely legitimate -- that one never imagined were there. Asked, when A is on a tear, if every day is like this, she replies, "No. It's often very pleasant," inserting half a beat between the last two words that effectively nullifies the entire statement. If A has few illusions, B has none at all. When a visitor bemoans "the loss of dignity" that comes with age, Metcalf, impatient with such nonsense, snaps. "Oh, stop it! It's downhill from sixteen on! For all of us!" She and Jackson make the facts of aging and death into a kind of existential vaudeville: "Remember monogamy?" she asks. Jackson considers it with furrowed brow and replies, definitively, "No." It's a moment worthy of Samuel Beckett.

That Alison Pill, as the young lawyer trying to get Jackson to put her signature on a pile of ignored papers and checks, doesn't make quite as strong an impression is hardly her fault; her character is more narrowly conceived. But, when Jackson, going on again about Norma Shearer, notes that she was married to "Arnold" Thalberg, adding that he "was a real smart little Jew," Pill's appalled reaction is totally on the money. ("All smart Jews are little," Metcalf interjects. "Have you noticed it that?") And when, halfway through, the play enters another reality altogether, Pill gets a chance to shine. A suffers a stroke, Buether's set performs a disorienting coup de théâtre and the ladies are transformed into A at three different stages of her life. Pill, certain that the world will comply with her plans, thinks she will enjoy plenty of romantic adventures and fulfillment. Metcalf has surrendered all hope of that and consoles herself with her considerable array of creature comforts. And Jackson looks back in a kind of sorrow, stiffened by the knowledge that the decisions that shaped her ultimately arid existence were hers and hers alone. It's an extraordinary three-way colloquy, a composition for three voices, delivered with the supple grace of a trio of musicians.

Three Tall Women is Edward Albee's tribute -- backhanded, yet written with a certain grudging respect -- to his mother, who adopted him, then ignored and disapproved of him, maintaining a silence of roughly twenty years before achieving a kind of truce that had no room for intimacy but saw them through to her end. It's not exactly a work of forgiveness, but it is marked by a deep understanding that the same losses -- the ailments, the mounting indignities, the loss of independence -- are in store for us all. In the hands of director Joe Mantello and his peerless cast, Albee's play -- which always glittered, thanks to the precision of its language -- is a case of choice sparkling cyanide, every laugh carrying an intimation of the grave.

The rest of the production is equally fine, including Paul Gallo's remarkably detailed lighting and Ann Roth's costumes. Fitz Patton's sound design includes reinforcement for some scene-setting piano exercises.

And there's the unforgettable sight of Jackson, lying in bed, shrunken and vulnerable, seemingly possessed of the knowledge that death is nobody's servant. The play's closing passage focuses on the finality of it all, the possibility of peace when one ultimately surrenders and quietly, simply, lets go. It's the closest to a benediction that Albee ever got; you can credit his mother for that. -- David Barbour

(6 April 2018)

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