Over dinner at Joe Allen, with her hoodie sweatshirt zipped all the way to the top (“I’m in a draft”), Glenda Jackson insists she is not intimidating. Never mind that the 81-year-old is a two-time Oscar recipient (“I didn’t win them; I was given them,” she says). Never mind her 23 years in the British Parliament or her return to acting in 2016 in London playing King Lear. When director Joe Mantello took on a new production of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, he knew he needed actors who could “go toe-to-toe with Glenda,” as he says. Yet at this suggestion, Jackson responds with force: “I didn’t know I was such a monster!”
In response, Jackson’s co-stars genially do go toe-to-toe with her. Were they intimidated? “Of course!” says 32-year-old Alison Pill, a one-time Tony nominee. “And you should be. There’s no time for nonsense.” “I thought I had stamina,” adds 62-year-old Laurie Metcalf, an Oscar nominee this year and a Tony winner. “This one”—she indicates Jackson—“is a workhorse in the room.”
In Three Tall Women, Jackson plays “A,” an ailing, bigoted, veiled version of Albee’s mother. Metcalf and Pill are “B” and “C,” A’s caretaker and lawyer in the first act and younger versions of A in the second. The trio must act as distinct personalities yet also as a whole—a description that applies to the actors as well. “Spending this many hours saying the same words over and over,” Pill says, “there’s a natural melding of personhoods that can occur.”
The conversation turns to the play, particularly how A gets the opportunity to vent her feelings about a character that represents Albee—which Pill suggests is “generous.” “I don’t think it’s generous,” Jackson says, insisting they can’t know the playwright’s intentions. A and C have hypothesis and antithesis; so B provides synthesis. “If it’s intentional, I find it generous,” Metcalf decides. Artistic harmony achieved, by going toe-to-toe-to-toe.