NEW YORK — I must begin with a disclaimer. Glenda Jackson is a personal hero of mine. Of course, she is a terrific actor, as her two Academy Awards and countless theatrical honors will testify, but she also spent 23 years in the British Parliament working tirelessly as a Labour MP for a London constituency. It was there she gave a magnificent fire-brand speech against Margaret Thatcher’s legacy.
So when I found out she was, at the age of 81, returning to Broadway, I had to try to see her. When I found out it was in Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” I was even more excited. Then there was the little matter of her co-stars being Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill — I was all in.
How wonderful, then, to report that I was not disappointed. In fact, it was one of those occasions where expectations were not only met, but exceeded.
I like Albee’s plays but had not seen or read “Three Tall Women.” One thinks of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “The Zoo Story” or “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” and I knew this play won him the last of his three Pulitzer Prizes, but I was surprised by how wonderful the writing is. Amazingly, this is the first time the play has been mounted on Broadway.
The titular women are listed only as A., B. and C., a nonagenarian, her housekeeper and a young lawyer. When we meet them, A. is cantankerous and feisty, cooped up in her luxurious apartment, reliant on B. to help her. B. is used to the foibles of her charge and carries out her duties with a minimum of fuss and a weary seen-it-all demeanor. C. is there to talk about A.’s finances, matter-of-factly contradicting the old woman when A. claims to be 91, pointing out that she’s 92. Is that vanity or forgetfulness? A. seems to have her faculties intact even if her body betrays her age.
Jackson’s signature voice is strong and dominating, even as she carries herself with the frailty of age. This is not a contradiction, but rather a character that, as Dylan Thomas wrote, is raging against the dying of the light.
The nominal Act 1 (the play has no intermission) ends with A. incapacitated by a stroke, but that leads us to the switch. All three actors are now A. at different stages of her life. C. is young, single and hopeful. B. is 54, jaded and can see the choices her younger self has made, although she is not quite yet A. Theoretically, these women are all Albee’s mother, who adopted him as an infant, yet never really adapted to the subtleties of motherhood.
The three women argue, with a verbal thrust and parry. C. is incredulous at what she will become. B. is at that moment of her life when she can already see what she will become.
But this is A.’s, and Jackson’s, play. She is facing her death not with a whimper but with defiance, the same way she lived her life. The story about her husband and the necklace is darkly funny and offers a window into her psyche. Jackson is every bit as good as her reputation suggests. From the moment the play starts, she controls the proceedings, pushing and pulling her fellow actors, who play their parts to perfection.
In Act 2, when they get to share time as A., Metcalf and Pill are given more to play with and they are certainly up to the task. Pill’s lawyer is given the least to do, but as young A., not yet a bitter old woman, she sets up the scene for the other two to “educate” her as to what to expect from life.
Metcalf shows her chops with two different portrayals, with the downtrodden housekeeper contrasted with the steely middle-aged A., who, while embittered, is, as she says, at the top of the hill, able to look down on the others — and “What a view.”
The production, directed by Joe Mantello, makes use of some clever staging as the three women become one (at my first attempt to see the play in previews the show had to be canceled because the computer didn’t work), but in all honesty it would have been just as powerful with the three women sitting in a bare room.
Albee has given these actors a gift, with three parts for women that truly stand tall.
“Three Tall Women” is at the John Golden Theater through June 24.