Watching Glenda Jackson in theatrical flight is like looking straight into the sun. Her expressive face registers her thoughts while guarding her feelings. But it’s the voice that really thrills. Deeply pitched and clarion clear, it’s the commanding voice of stern authority. Don’t mess with this household god or she’ll turn you to stone.
Her character, designated “A,” in Edward Albee’s surreal manner, is the dominant figure in the maternal triad that the scribe drew to represent three stages in the life of his own adoptive mother, with whom he had a complicated, not to say rocky relationship. “B” (Laurie Metcalf, a great actress oddly miscast) characterizes the same woman in middle age, conscious of her mental and physical strength, but uncertain of her actual power. “C” (Alison Pill, looking panicked) represents the same mother figure, but in her youth, observing her older selves in horror.
From time to time, more realistic roles are suggested for these emblematic figures. “A” is a narcissistic old woman on her deathbed. “B” is her caretaker and “C” does her errands. But reality doesn’t really become them. And aside from the obvious fact that every breath they draw is taking them closer to death, nothing dramatic actually happens on stage.
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The imposing bedroom set (designed by Miriam Buether and tastefully lighted by Paul Gallo) is the period-perfect backdrop for a woman of “A’s” age and sensibilities. The bed itself is overpowering, covered in fine fabrics and crowned by a vaguely regal headboard. The rest of the furnishings — antique chairs, upholstery, blanket chest, wall covering, framed pictures (but no family photos) — contribute to the aura of claustrophobic safety. But this visual suggestion of safety is an illusion because this is a punishing play. The sentiments are cold and steely, and even though the language is beautiful, it is fierce.
Structurally, the play is very nearly a monologue, punctuated by frequent contributions from “B” and “C” that serve to change the subject, correct the narrative, or shift the mood. They can also be unkind. “B” keeps reminding “A” that she’s losing her faculties and “C” is insistent that “A” is 92, and not 91, as the old woman would have it. While these insertions are written in a rather flat idiom, the wandering memories of “A” have distinct beauty — selfish and hurtful, but beautiful all the same.
Whenever “A” is focused and living in the present, she seems querulous, self-centered, and unlikable — and Jackson makes no apologies for her. “Everybody out there is ready to rob me blind” is typical of her many complaints. And when “C,” certain that “A” is too gaga to notice, dares to criticize the old woman, she snaps back. “I pay you, don’t I? You can’t talk to me that way.” The sheer fury in Jackson’s delivery makes you want to hide under the bed. If that was Albee’s mother as he knew her at the end of her life, it’s no wonder he wrote this savage play in her memory.
What makes “A” so interesting — fascinating, really — are all the younger selves she keeps alive in her failing mind. And what makes Jackson so absolutely riveting in these flashbacks is her total investment in each fragment of “A’s” many persona.
After remembering how her mother warned her about men and their selfish demands, her flashback to the night she met her husband is gorgeous. “I met him at a party and he said he’d seen me before. He said, ‘Let’s go riding in the park’ and I said, ‘Alright.’ Scared to death. I lied; I said I rode. He didn’t care; he wanted me; I could tell.”
If there is one thing Jackson is not, it is sentimental. There are lines — like “You count on them and they die or go away” — that some thesps would milk like a cow. But not Jackson, with her commitment to truth in performance. (see: “King Lear”) Not even a real heartbreaker like “I remember being tall” can break her down. She’s tough, and in her toughness, she shows us exactly what makes “A” a memorable character: her unbending backbone. The irony is, Albee supposedly wrote this play to even things up with his difficult mother. With Jackson in the role, his mother punches back.