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Stage Door: Glenda Jackson in "Three Tall Women"

by Eric Blume

The Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s 1994 play Three Tall Women opens on Thursday. It stars Alison Pill, freshly Oscar nominated Laurie Metcalf, and two-time Oscar winner Glenda Jackson, who hasn’t been on an American stage in 32 years.  

Director Joe Mantello builds a stunning production.  Albee’s play, which won the Pulitzer Prize when it debuted off-Broadway in 1994, holds up beautifully, as all of his major plays do.  Albee writes in a theatrical, controlled, but go-for-broke language that soars in the way only the best theater can. Three Tall Women is a major play, like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Seascape and The Zoo Story and A Delicate Balance and The Goat, Or Who is Sylvia?.  It’s mind-boggling when you think of this man’s contribution to the theater, and the deep and compelling issues and emotions he tackled during his long career.

rehearsing Three Tall Women

Act One of Three Tall Women deals with a rich, dying old woman (Jackson), her caretaker (Metcalf), and her legal representative (Pill)... 

 Then Act Two begins (without intermission) with a twist: all three actors are playing age-different versions of the oldest woman, who lies behind them in a coma.  Mantello treats this whammy with a no-nonsense crispness, trusting the audience will catch up in due time and stretch their theatrical minds. 

Allison Pill has the smallest role but she registers, and her cling to hope makes the play’s meanings deeper and more beautiful.  For those of us still bruised about Metcalf’s Oscar loss, it’s thrilling to see her firing once again on all cylinders.  Her quicksilver mind and peerless comic instincts mine every ounce of wit and humor from the piece, but she can turn on a dime to bring on darkness, too.  The three actresses work beautifully and generously with each other.


Which brings us to Glenda Jackson.  Jackson took 23 years off from acting to engage in a political career, and she came back only a few years ago to play King Lear in London.  Jackson was of course a major film actress during the 1970s, winning two Best Actress Oscars for Women in Love and A Touch of Class.  While that Oscar for A Touch of Class remains one of Oscar’s true oddball wins, she made a big contribution to cinema.  She was the muse of crazy director Ken Russell for several of his films, and received an additional Best Actress nomination for her lovely work in Sunday, Bloody Sunday.  She wasn’t a cuddly actress, and her power came from how distanced she kept you.  She was remote and chilling, intellectual and intimidating, but utterly spellbinding in her best roles.

She’s Tony-bound for this performance in Three Tall Women.  She holds the stage with the same indomitable control she was always known for.  She captures the dementia in Act One with unerring accuracy and terrifying force.  And in Act Two she conjures an ethereal quality that seems to float inbetween memory and reality.  She rules the stage with authority, but she doesn’t run over Metcalf and Pill …she works with them, trusting when to pull into another lane and pass them only as the text dictates.  Her gravitas is heart-stopping, but she’s light and funny too when she sees an opportunity. It’s going to be the performance of the season.

Metcalf, Jackson, and Pill photographed by Peter Hapak for New York Magazine

P.S.  If (when) Jackson wins the Tony, she will become the 24th actor to complete the official Triple Crown of Acting (performers who have won competitive Oscar, Tony, and Emmy Awards).  The most recent Triple Crowners are Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, Frances McDormand, Jessica Lange, and Viola Davis. Could anyone have imagined Glenda Jackson would be making this kind of comeback at age 81 ?!? 


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Reader Comments (15)

I can only urge people to look for Glenda Jackson's speech on (or rather: against) Margaret Thatcher during a Parliamentary debate right after Thatcher's death. It's the most theatrical thing I've ever seen, and you will rally for Parliaments stuffed with Oscar-winning actors after this. Booing from the side of the bench had no effect on her delivery at all. This is, truly, a performance.

March 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMrW

I was convinced that her Lear would give her the Tony, but this project sounds even better. I love the play.

March 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I think it's a tragedy that so many years of Jackson's acting career (particularly on film, but stage as well) were lost to politics. Nothing wrong with politics, but acting is truly Jackson's calling. in ability, she's clearly equal to the two greatest British actresses ever (I'm talking Vanessa Redgrave and Vivien Leigh), and superior to some of the most esteemed British actresses in history (Dench, Smith, Mirren). Jackson's place in the pantheon will probably not be as high as it should be, because of those lost yers.

March 27, 2018 | Unregistered Commentergiliad

She was also Oscar-nominated for 'Hedda'! One of my all time favorite actresses. :)

March 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

giliad -- Quite agree, but at least she did something! The stay at home years of Jane Fonda were even more tragic.

P.S. I'm going to miss Cynthia Nixon.

March 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Thanks for the review. I will certainly queue up for Three Tall Women in early April. Hope I can get a ticket! Metcalf and Glenda as variations of A, B and C! Can't wait.

@MrW -- I agree! That speech is found on Youtube.
@giliad -- I can't agree more! Wish there is a vehicle for her and Redgrave to star in. Maybe some sort of The Whales of August or a new film with new characters rather than retreads of stories already done.

March 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterOwl

Seeing this next month...can't wait! :)

March 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

How I love Glenda Jackson! She has such rage and fury that isn't muted or transmuted but expressed fully as if it's a natural part of being alive. She's not afraid, but goes full blown into action. So inspiring!

I don't think of her as chilly at all. Earthy and immediate, yes. I think that the love she got with her two Oscars was recognition and joy that such a vivid and uncompromising actress could work and succeed in times that were oppressive in so many ways.

Her success in politics was another arena where people felt that she "spoke with the voice of the people". How I envy people who get to see her in this play.

March 27, 2018 | Unregistered Commenteradri

@ Eric: I wonder if Metcalf and Pill will compete in the featured category?

March 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew

This is going to be heartbreaking to miss.

March 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBrad

@Matthew, since they are all billed above title, the producers will need to petition for any of them to move to Featured Actress. my guess is they will petition to move Pill to that category, and Metcalf and Jackson will be in the lead category...very likely noms for all three if they go that way.

March 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEricB

Can we have ‘Oscar nominee/winner’ Alison Pill soon please?

March 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterChoog

Jackson is a true icon of international cinema

March 27, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterjaragon

Jackson's Queen Liz I is one for the ages!! I adored Cate's version, but none can surpassed Glenda Jackson's Elizabeth R!!!

March 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

Metcalf and Pill will compete in Featured per the latest Tony eligibility meeting.

April 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

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