I never met, and have read almost nothing directly about, Edward Albee’s adoptive mother. But like every theater critic who has watched the bulk of Albee’s work come to life onstage, I feel as though I have met the lady many, many times. I would not, however, presume to call her a friend. To judge by the mark she left on her adopted son’s collected plays, Frances Cotter Albee must have been, as they say, quite a piece of work. The formality-obsessed, bossy Mommy of The American Dream and The Sandbox; the haughty, fear-haunted Claire of A Delicate Balance; the tight-lipped, grudge-clutching Wife of All Over; the indomitable Gillian of Marriage Play: Even this partial list makes it hard to imagine what Albee’s career would have been without the unhappiness his mother seemed so ready to generate.
Never assume, though, that Albee would not have willingly traded all the prizes and box-office profits for a set of parents, and particularly a mother, with whom he could have — literally — felt more at home. The emotional baggage that playwrights’ parents visit on their gifted, perceptive offspring is a lifelong burden; each play is merely a way of setting it down, so the gasping baggage-carrier can rest for a moment and take stock of his or her situation. Then the burden is heaved onto the shoulders again, pressing the burdened soul onward to the next achievement. Forgiveness comes hard, and can take a lifetime to achieve.
The understanding that brings forgiveness is the substance of Three Tall Women, which ranks with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as one of the two great turning points in Albee’s career. Virginia Woolf’s arrival on Broadway in 1962 made Albee both a major commercial player and a literary figure of world-class stature. By 1991, when Three Tall Women premiered in Vienna’s English Theatre, those two roles were seriously at odds. World-class literary figures don’t tailor their results to the demands of the commercial market, and Albee had produced a succession of works virtually guaranteed to give that market palpitations. The puzzling but relatively graspable A Delicate Balance (1966) was the notable exception, blossoming like an oasis among what otherwise seemed (to the commercial marketers) a desert of paradoxical, eccentric, or downright incomprehensible productions. The infuriating adaptations — Malcolm (1966) even infuriated the author of the source novel, while Lolita (1981) infuriated everybody — and the literary experiments, like Quotations From Chairman Mao-Tse-Tung (1968), might be written off as make-work to fill the time between major plays. But there was no way for money-minded Broadway to dodge the resolutely uncommercial reality of Tiny Alice (1964), All Over (1971), Seascape (1975), The Lady From Dubuque (1980), and The Man Who Had Three Arms (1983). Whatever prestige Albee might still command in the wider world, or through revivals of his two “hits,” Broadway had consigned him to the outer darkness.
Then came Three Tall Women, its arrival coinciding with the season-long Signature Theatre salute that gave New York its first view of Marriage Play, Counting the Ways, Listening, and the one-act gem Finding the Sun. Albee in bulk Off-Broadway, with the superlative Three Tall Women crowning the season, might not be a Broadway-style commercial power, but he was suddenly a welcome guest, a figure clearly to be reckoned with. From then until his death in 2016, Albee stood in the role he should always have held: the playwright as public intellectual, with his earlier works, including some of the more challenging, being revived and re-tested, while he turned out new creations, inevitably varied in quality. He even ventured back onto Broadway with his deliciously provocative The Goat (2002).
And now Three Tall Women has joined the ranks of the Albee plays that have established a foothold on Broadway, in a clear-cut and largely excellent production (apart from some needless flim-flammery with an upstage mirror) by Joe Mantello. One assumes that Albee, who after his late-life return to success became a much warmer and more amiable man (at least to judge by my own occasional encounters with him), must be looking on and smilin’; one wonders if Frances Cotter Albee is also doing so. For the play is a triumph of empathy, in which a woman unyielding and unforgiving is made forgivable, and even somewhat admirable, through an effort of comprehension that could come only through a playwright’s long-practiced skills.
The woman, in the play, is nameless. Her son, who appears for a segment of its second scene, is silent. (On Broadway, he is not even listed in the program.) By the time he arrives, she has had a stroke and is either dead or comatose. The speaking roles in that scene are representations of her at three ages — 26, 52, and 92. In the first scene, A (Glenda Jackson), the 92-year-old, is the woman, facing the end of her life. B (Laurie Metcalf) is her 52-year-old hired companion. C (Alison Pill) is a smart 26-year-old envoy from her lawyer’s office, there to compel A to attend to some long-neglected legal business. (A has developed the rather Trumpian characteristic of preferring to challenge bills rather than pay them.)
A’s memory is fallible, her motor functions generally require B’s assistance, and she frequently loses the thread of what she was saying. None of which stops her from dominating the conversation, or from insisting on her right to dominate it. In the first scene, we see B alternately abetting and gently but firmly correcting her, while C, more coldly distant, registers her frustration — as strongly as she can without alienating a woman who’s clearly one of her firm’s major clients. In scene two, when all three have become avatars of the comatose figure in the onstage bed, the memories in which A has previously indulged are now distributed evenly among the woman’s three ages, each from her own perspective. C, bright, playful, and a shade arrogant about her youthful charm, does not relish the thought of becoming A. B, in a transitional stage, is laden with regrets for that playful past and new assurances stemming from the role she has learned to play as the wife of a wealthy and powerful man. A rebukes them both with the wisdom — and regret — that she has acquired over her late decades. Both A and B have much to say about the Boy (and to him, although he doesn’t hear them), who comes in to sit silently at the woman’s bedside, and then goes out as quietly as he came, leaving their turmoil behind him.
Less a piece of action than interaction, Albee’s text is really a dramatized poem, full of humor, sharp in its psychological details, and suffused with the complexity of human motives. We learn so much about the woman who has aged into A — her hopes, her background, her fears, her limitations, her needs — that when the talk traverses her unhappiness with her husband or her fury at the way her son has turned out, we understand each of these points of strong feeling as the sum of a vast calculation, adding up a lifetime of accumulated moments. Rich in its easy flow of language, Three Tall Women is also rich in its directness. While the sentences often display the ornate syntax of an educated class of bygone days — a syntax Albee grew up with and cherishes in his writing — they virtually never bog down, as other Albee plays sometimes do, in mere verbal quibbles. The words here come seamlessly, as in a poem the author sorely needed to write. The deep thought packed into them has clearly been building for decades.
The quality that makes Glenda Jackson’s performance a transcendent one is something of a surprise. Jackson, for me, is one of the acting icons of the post-genteel, “Angry” generation in British theater — angular, politically aware, unafraid of the fierce and harsh sectors of the emotional spectrum. In my mind, she always appears first as I saw her in 1967, as Charlotte Corday in Marat/Sade: the eerie, rigid movements; the darting, frantic eyes; the strange, seemingly displaced voice. Yet here, amid the elegantly comfortable furnishings of an Albee room, draped in the lavishly ornate cascades of Albee’s language, she has absorbed into her persona a grande-dame actress of the generation her generation was rebelling against, in one of the innumerable cozy plays the West End theaters turned out in the Forties and Fifties for the particular delectation of matinee ladies — only, of course, with the difference that half a century makes. For everything is different: Three Tall Women may evoke such midcentury plays but is definitely not one of them, and the evident delight that Jackson takes in slipping into the character of a West End star amusing herself and her following with such a play is like an iridescent scarf of sparkling theatricality draped over a performance as solidly built and reality-based as the best sort of Greek tragic acting. Picture a playful Clytemnestra, and you will get some idea of Jackson’s work.
Jackson gets to blaze out so starrily, in part, because Metcalf, as B, has chosen a deliberately un-grand approach to the character’s impending grandeur: This is a woman who has not yet become the domineering dowager A has turned into. She is still experimenting with the role, testing her authority and learning fast what she can and can’t get away with. Where Marian Seldes’s unforgettable B vented her full rage on the disappointing son, Metcalf’s “Get out of my house!,” equally memorable in its way, is a half-choked sob of recrimination at her own failure. At every point, Metcalf builds with similar quietude, and every point strikes home. Understandably, Pill, constrained by the smallest of the three roles, sometimes pushes her character forward, especially in the second scene, a little too self-consciously. But it’s hard to imagine any actress sharing the stage with these two performances not feeling the itch to compete; the alternative would be to retreat in terror, and no actress worth her salt would do that, given a role with such opportunities in a play of Three Tall Women’s stature. It depicts a mode of life shared by very few, but its sense of living has the fullness that gives a play an unmistakable claim to be called a masterpiece.