Broadway Review: Valor Rules Supreme in “Three Tall Women” at the John Golden Theatre

Broadway Review: Valor Rules Supreme in “Three Tall Women” at the John Golden Theatre (Currently On)
By Edward Albee
Directed by Joe Mantello
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“Three Tall Women” by Edward Albee Grapples with the Dignity and Valiancy of Death.

What if the seven “characters” in Jacques the melancholy’s monologue in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” could “meet” and share with one another the experiences they had in their particular “stage of life?” What if “the lean and slipper’d pantaloon” could let the “soldier” know how his life would change, or if both could warn the “infant” of the pitfalls of adolescence and adulthood? And then what if “second childishness and mere oblivion; sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” could communicate to all his “stages” the importance of humor and perspective? The protagonist in “Three Tall Women,” currently running at the John Golden Theatre, manages that achievement with grace and charming caprice.

In the second act of Edward Albee’s play, after she suffers a stroke at ninety-Character A (Glenda Jackson) joins Character B (Laurie Metcalf who looks rather as A would have at 52) and Character C (Alison Pill who looks rather as B would have at 26) for a conversation about “their” life. The playwright’s conceit is an engaging and complicated metaphor allowing the audience to explore this valiant (tall) character’s mind as she slips into the recesses of dementia. She/they reflect upon many the surprises life brings, the status of her/their son, the death of her/their husband, and what defines a “happy time.” Character A answers the question. “I was talking about . . . what: coming to the end of it; yes. So. There it is. You asked, after all. That’s the happiest moment. When it’s all done. When we stop. When we can stop.”

This conversation occurs downstage with Character A lying in bed upstage behind a transparent wall in a room that mirrors the downstage room. The upstage room (the real “present” in the second act) is vacated by Characters B and C at the beginning of the second act as they move downstage and are met by Character A. Miriam Buether’s inventive set and Paul Gallo’s surreal lighting allow the audience to be reflected in the set’s transparent wall. The audience not only “listens in” to the conversation: the audience members are “in” the room, hovering over character A’s body and mind, sharing the boy’s “visit” to his mother.

Act One (the real universe) sets the stage for Act Two (the surreal, alternate universe) and provides the exposition for the remainder of the play. A’s caregiver B (Laurie Metcalf) and A’s legal advisor C (Alison Pill) spar with the cantankerous nonagenarian about age, incontinence, the loss of control, the loss of dignity, the loss of memory, mortality, retribution, parenting, horseback riding, marriage, infidelity, amputation, racism, friendship, regret, and osteoporosis. Think T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” on steroids. Condescension and sarcasm careen around the room – from chair to bed and back – and establish the tone for the following act.

Under Joe Mantello’s exquisite direction, the complex action moves forward with clarity and precision. Glenda Jackson delivers a stunning performance as the quarrelsome A whose descent into senility provides the backdrop for “Three Tall Women.” Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill provide equally brilliant portrayals of B and C – as “real” characters and as residents of A’s “alternate universe.” The three actors clearly care for one another and support one another in bringing to life three valiant women in the stages of one life that prepares for what might be life’s most valued and happiest moment.