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Glenda Jackson Stands Tall, On And Off Stage

Glenda Jackson plays A, the eldest of the three women in the new Broadway production of Edward Albee's <em>Three Tall Women.</em>
Brigitte Lacombe
Glenda Jackson plays A, the eldest of the three women in the new Broadway production of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women.

A generation after it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, Edward Albee's Three Tall Women makes its Broadway debut this week.

Three women of different generations — one in her 90s, one in her 50s, one in her 20s — are brought together around a deathbed. They bark, joke, bicker and compare their different vantages in life.

A small but all-star cast gives vivacity to Albee's surgically sharp words: Allison Pill, Laurie Metcalf and, as the commanding dowager of the trio, Glenda Jackson. The Academy Award-winning actress — a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, a Commander of the British Empire and, for 23 years, a member of Parliament — is making her first return to Broadway in 30 years.

"It's a marvelous, marvelous play," Jackson says. "And it is such a treat to work with other actresses, because it shocks me still that contemporary dramatists don't find women interesting. Usually if there is a woman's part in a piece, there's only one so you've got no other actresses to work with. With this, there are just the three of us. And that is really thrilling, to have that."

Interview Highlights

On executing Albee's distinct language

In this particular play, extremely difficult, because he uses very, very simple words, and he uses the words more than once. But he'll put them in different places in sentences. And so towards the beginning, occasionally still, you'll think: Haven't I just said that? No, there's a slight variation on that. So that is one of the difficulties.

On her 23-year spell as a member of Parliament

I enjoyed the constituency responsibilities. I was extremely fortunate — I represented a very, very interesting constituency. ... But essentially, every single aspect of the demographic breakdown is living in that part of London. And it was a marvelous constituency to represent — and I miss that, and I miss the constituents. But I must be honest: I don't miss Parliament itself. I mean, I saw egos going up and down those corridors that would not be tolerated for 30 seconds in the professional theater. And you think: What are they doing, you know?

On how she feels about the ending line:

That's the happiest moment. When it's all done. When we stop. When we can stop.

It varies, I mean, because, you know, every performance is different. Some nights I'm quite teary. Other nights I'm not. It's quite interesting.

I've always said the first duty of life is to live it, and I do believe that. And we delude ourselves if we think it's not going to end. How we individually meet that, I think, is entirely individual. Obviously, I have met it when those I've loved have died. And that — what I found surprising about that, was that, for example, I still think: Oh, I must get my mother one of those. Or the time the grief stays with you. But whether how you as the individual meet that moment, well, it is — it's the last great adventure, isn't it?

On any role she still longs to play

It always amazed me — it still does — that people offer me work. And when the theater was my basic bread and butter, every time a show finished, I was convinced I would never work again. So I'm still amazed that people offer me work.

I suppose my earliest experience where getting a job was extremely difficult. I mean, it still is. Ours is a vastly crowded profession. And if you're a women within it, it's even more overcrowded, 'cause there is such a dearth of parts for women. So to be offered anything is — to say, you know, 'I fancy doing this' — seems to me to be gratuitously greedy, in a funny kind of way.

On what's next for her

Well, what I'm doing next is another performance of the play — I mean, at the moment. 'Cause every performance is the first one.

Sarah Handel and Viet Le produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.