Glenda Jackson is brilliant. Throughout Three Tall Women, her craggy face—one Beckett would have loved—alternately radiates wisdom, confusion, knowing cynicism, and puckish amusement, all with a firmly-pursed upper lip. The primary difference, I think, between stage and film acting is the requirement for stage actors to use all of their body. Too frequently, this means a series of weak and incoherent gestures, a filling up of space that confuses acting with action. By comparison, Ms. Jackson relies on stillness, a powerful, precise stillness that imbues any action she takes tremendous weight: a crooking of the neck, for example, or a silent cackle.
Deification of Ms. Jackson, then, is the only proper response to Three Tall Women, a solid, mid-to-late Albee play that is either about three women at different stages of their lives or the same woman during those three different stages. Or perhaps it’s both. In any case, an infirm A (Ms. Jackson), all dressed up for death, recalls a lifetime of immense wealth and marital compromise. B (Laurie Metcalf), middle aged, helps facilitate A’s movements, both physical and bowel, while explaining away her elderly racism to C (Alison Pill), a naïve twentysomething who hasn’t quite acknowledged yet that “it’s downhill from sixteen on.” Life and death, then, are the subject, life that is both more than we should expect and less than we hope, and death that is a deliverance from it all.
Unfortunately, by comparison, Ms. Metcalf is patently unfocused. She shuffles around the stage, fiddling with props and gawking at her co-stars, but I get the feeling she does this less because she has consciously made these choices than because she hasn’t actually made any; it’s filler, busy work, and next to Ms. Jackson it is all the more glaring. Ms. Pill, sitting somewhere between these extremes, is passable.
There is, then, an underlying narrative to this particular production of Three Tall Women, not about the death of an individual but the death of a craft. Celebrity has poisoned the well, and Broadway is burdened to the point of collapse with superstars ready to trade in fame for artistic credibility. Perhaps I’m being histrionic, but in a landscape where Katie Holmes is shouting Arthur Miller and Ethan Hawke is butchering Shakespeare, it really feels like stage acting, as distinct from film acting, is disappearing. So go see Ms. Jackson—before it’s too late.