We were three friends traveling different roads, sitting in the same place. We are three, like the women in the play and symbolically significant.
Three is the number of time (past, present, future), the cycle of life (birth, life, death) and the sacred number of truth in many religions. But we don’t think of that as we lose ourselves in the three women on stage. We are watching Edward Albee’s Pulitzer prize-winning play, Three Tall Women.
There we sit in the last row of the orchestra section, me and two special girlfriends – glued to the actors on stage whose voices rise and fall like the bustling streets outside New York’s Broadway district. The characters’ stories unfold in the first of only two scenes in the play. Like life, there is no intermission.
Wonderful reviews describe the heralded return of Albee’s play to Broadway. It’s back again, having first opened in 1991. As we three women watch the characters, we are moved by their joyful pleasures and disappointing pains. We witness the stages of life and I immediately tap into my own awareness of our mortality. I feel a strange emotional sadness about what I’m seeing – how fast life goes by.
Each of the stage characters – one elderly, one middle-aged and one just beginning her adult life – appear to be traveling on separate paths. But gradually we realize they have more in common than we first thought. Albee’s genius is his ability to move beyond the confines of linear time, bringing the past, present and future all together in the first scene. Glenna Jackson, the two-time Academy Award winning actress and British Parliamentarian, is all of these women even though we only see her as a old woman nearing the end of her life in the first scene.
Jackson is amazing and we watch as she struggles to persuade herself that her life was well-lived. She wraps her worn body and her mental faculties under a lavender robe and silky, sage-colored sheets, offering a kind of tortured comfort. We learn about her tattered life – her husbands’ indiscretions, an estranged gay son, and her tall dreams for happiness.
What’s strange is how each of the character’s in Albee’s play are nameless. In the Playbill, they are listed as characters A, B, and C. Laurie Metcalf is woman B, the sassy and resilient caregiver of A, Glenda Jackson. B goes back and forth like the middle character she is – young at times and filled with hope, or broken and tired like character A. Character C, played by Alison Pill, is a young lawyer with her life ahead of her. C watches A and B with detached disinterest.
In the second scene, the stage has changed. A mirror behind the bed tilts the audience’s angle, showing how time has passed. Without giving the plot away, the circumstances for A are much different. A sees her life for all that it is, and I feel like I’m on stage watching the passage of mine. I wonder if my friends on either side of me feel like I do?
I dare to look sideways. hoping my tears don’t show. Relief – one has her eyes closed. But I can feel the eyes of my other friend watching me as I follow the action on stage. She is shaken too.
We are the Three Tall Women. We sit next to life in all of its splendor and all of its humanity. As I sit next to myself, I see my reflection – my life – in the friends beside me. Our friendship tells me that we are three tall women.