Director Joe Mantello has crafted an exquisite waltz of a revival of Edward Albee’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning Three Tall Women, in which three phases of an unnamed woman’s life speak to, through, and around each other. The mute son who wafts upstage and is so often discussed is more a source of unresolved regret than a fully fleshed-out character. (This is, of course, the playwright and his famously unpleasant, irascible mother.)
Through the first act, this is a conventional play, with women of staggered ages: 20s, 50s and 90s, called A, B and C. The women are found on a familiar set: a storybook, 20th-century upper-class bedroom with sitting area, all crafted to an off-white, wainscoted, silk-curtained fare-thee-well by Miriam Buether. Our presiding matriarch, physically infirm A (Glenda Jackson), spends the act in an expensive robe, favoring a wounded arm, assisted from chair to offstage bathroom to bed by B (Laurie Metcalf), her mostly bemused caretaker, dressed in sensible shoes, slacks, silky blouse and sweater. The presenting action is the arrival of C (Alison Pill), a 20-something professional in a suit who cradles a briefcase, checks her makeup, inquires about finances, and represents A’s attorneys. Costumes by Ann Roth delicately suggest nuances of class and character for these women. No one is working class here.
Despite the rich, luxe surroundings, A is losing her faculties as well as control of her bodily functions. B is charming, quick-witted and patient, though sometimes gently manipulative. As a caregiver, she not only tends to A’s physical needs but comforts her when distressed and sides with her against the efficient, high-heeled, briefcase-toting interloper C. Manila folder open and pen in hand, we wonder what notes C is taking. Occasionally the dialogue muddies the relationships, suggesting that B might be preparing C (or C’s firm) to take over caretaking duties at some point. We never learn who these women really are.
The break between the intermissionless acts is physical and emotional one. A has a stroke or heart attack, the set is reversed, and the audience suddenly sees itself in an expansive, intentionally disorienting set with scrims cutting the playing areas in obscure ways. Is this no longer a memory play but a reflection play?
In this new, modernist and impressionistic setting, adorned in Ann Roth’s flowing, distinctly styled dresses, A, B, and C fully embody women that speak as class colleagues; only age and experience separates them. We soon discover they have even less separating them, for they are the different dimensions of a woman, upstage, lying comatose in her bed.
Her mind functioning but immobilized, A considers her life. Or maybe her life considers her as the women, signifying the various phases of her life, interrogate each other. Through a scrim of memory, the mute son watches his comatose mother and perhaps achieves some measure of resolution.
Perhaps Mantello’s crowning achievement in this production is that each actor, even in a brutally realistic first act, relies heavily on humor. A shard of a memory from A related to riding horses leads to recollections of a marriage arranged not for love but for fulfilling a role. B and C both find ways to solicit stories from A, to indulge her memories when she has them, and not to press when the strands are lost or jumbled. Jackson’s A and Metcalf’s B often dissolve in laughter. Pill’s C laughs, too, usually at the expense of her elders. Each character occupies her space with weight and delicacy. There’s no oddly frozen action, no movement superfluous. It is a spare, elegant staging.
Pill gives us youthful earnest judgement and fear of aging; Metcalf gives us middle-aged clarity and the beginnings of regret; and Jackson provides frailty when called for but more, wisdom as needed. With lighting by Paul Gallo and sound by Fitz Patton augmenting both the play’s literal and post-modern worlds, we encounter three deeply rooted and charming women finding lightness in tragedy and darkness in comedy. Three Tall Women transforms Albee’s emotional exorcism into tremulous enchantment.