By Robert Heide
Three Tall Women is the play that won Edward Albee his third Pulitzer Prize for playwriting when it was first produced off-Broadway in 1994. His earlier Pulitzers went to A Delicate Balance (1966) and Seascape (1974). Prior to Three Tall Women, Albee was labeled by Broadway producers as “box-office poison” after works such as The Man Who Had Three Arms (1981), Finding the Sun (1982) and Marriage Play (1986-87) failed to attract audiences or critical acclaim.
Albee finally broke free of his stasis in writing in 1991 with Three Tall Women, when it premiered in Vienna, starring Myra Carter in the lead role. When first produced off-Broadway in 1994, the autobiographical work found the playwright once again at the top of his game. Miss Carter, who for many years lived across the street from me, told me that when she first performed the role of the aged mother she knew that if it ever got to New York it would get Albee another Pulitzer.
Reflecting on his inspiration for Three Tall Women, Albee said, “I knew I did not want to write a revenge piece… I could not abide her [my mother’s] prejudices, her loathings, her paranoias, but I did admire her sense of self. I was touched by her survivor instinct at age 90.” In the first act he looks at her from the outside. In the second act (there was no intermission) he transforms the characters into his mother’s younger, middle-aged, and older selves. In the second act an actor portraying a young Edward Albee confronts the mother without uttering a word.
With the new Broadway production of Three Tall Women, which opened at the Golden Theatre, the uptown newspaper reviews have been mostly ecstatic. Starring as “A,” the elderly mother, is Glenda Jackson; Laurie Metcalf is “B,” and Allison Pill is “C.” The play has been, in my opinion, expertly directed by Joe Mantello, with an extraordinary set designed by Miriam Buether and costume designs by Ann Roth.
And now the word is out that Three Tall Women may be Albee’s most powerful and important work. Beautifully written with precision and insight, this play could be compared to plays of Eugene O’Neill’s such as Strange Interlude and Long Day’s Journey into Night. In Strange Interlude—which I saw many years ago, starring Geraldine Page and Jane Fonda in one of Fonda’s first starring roles—Page steps out of the six-hour long play to speak as if directly to the audience, stating, “It has all been a strange interlude between the past which is no more, the future which is not yet here and the present which is now nothing.” In Long Day’s Journey, the message became “the past is the present and it’s the future too.” The device of step-forward monologues directed at the audience by all three actors is also used to great effect by Albee in this play.
As it happened, I was taken by a friend to see Three Tall Women on my birthday, May 9th. Afterwards, we were invited to Sardi’s for a birthday party for Glenda Jackson who had turned 84 that same day; and so I got to meet the great star who was just enchanting—simple, direct, and a lot of fun. At first I did not recognize her, dressed in a white blouse and slacks and without the elaborate makeup and wig she wears in the play. The great actress won two Academy Awards: one for Women in Love (1970) with Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, and one for A Touch of Class (1973) with George Segal. It should also be noted that Jackson was a Labor politician in Parliament for 23 years wherein she railed against Margaret Thatcher. At the birthday gathering we talked about Thatcher as we watched a parade of on-screen videos of Jackson throughout her career, including a recent stint as King Lear in London.
Three Tall Women should not be missed by serious theatregoers. The night I attended, the “bravos” would not stop. A recent quote stated to the press from Glenda Jackson about her varied career was, “I used to believe that anything was better than nothing. Now I know that sometimes nothing is better.”
Robert Heide is the author of the recently published Robert Heide 25 Plays, from Fast Books Press and is available at Three Lives, the Drama Bookshop, the Whitney Museum bookshop, and online at Amazon.