By Jordan Wright (Photo/Matt Liptak)
For those of you who saw the 1976 Maysles brothers’ documentary of the two Bouvier family women — mother Edith Bouvier Beale and daughter Little Edie, who lived in squalor in a decaying 25-room mansion in Easthampton, N.Y., the story behind The Little Theatre of Alexandria’s latest production, “Grey Gardens,” will be familiar.
Aunt and cousin to former first lady Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis, the two society women grew up with Jackie, but took distinctly separate paths. Their shocking story was chronicled in New York Magazine in the early 1970s.
Composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie have turned Doug Wright’s book into a riveting musical, bringing to life the tragic tale of a mother, who kept her daughter from leaving home, and a debutante daughter, whose guilt-ridden dreams of fame kept her at her eccentric mother’s side. It’s a tale with a dark side, told by the two reclusive women whose artistic leanings lead them down a rocky road to despair.
There is a certain fascination with the privileged and glamorous who have lost their fortune and are forced to live in reduced circumstances. And this tale does not disappoint. But it is also a fateful story of a mother’s jealousy of her daughter’s youth, beauty and eligible suitors, and her fear of living — and dying — alone.
Director Christopher Dykton has assembled a talented cast, taking us from 1941 with Little Edie played by Kate Collins Brown and the elder Edith portrayed brilliantly by Nicky McDonnell, who segues into the role of the daughter when Act 2 takes us to 1973 and Jennifer Strand becomes the Big Edie. Having seen the documentary, it’s clear the three actresses nailed the characters, and their New York upper class accents, perfectly. Costume designer Grant Kevin Lane completes the portrait by recreating the quirky clothing that Little Edie designed for herself.
In the 1940s, when Big Edie was married to “Major” Bouvier (Dick Reed), Grey Gardens was the setting for many lavish parties where she entertained her guests with popular songs of the day. Accompanied by her companion, pianist George Gould Strong (Blakeman Brophy), Jackie, Little Edie and Jackie’s sister Lee Bouvier (Penelope Gallagher) sang along.
It was what the Major called “a madhouse, that bohemia.” Abandoning his family on the night of Edie’s announcement of her marriage to Joseph Kennedy Jr. (Marshall Cesena) and destroying Edie’s chances at love and an escape from her mother’s clutches, he fled to Mexico for a divorce. Meanwhile, her mother had already been undermining her by regaling young Joe with tales of her daughter’s wild adventures at the local country club. “I’m not your daughter. I’m just your shadow,” Edie realizes.
When the women’s dire circumstances are revealed in the second act, “The money tree came down with Dutch Elm disease,” Edith quips. Edie is now 56, her beauty fading fast. When she realizes she is forever tethered to her mother and their 52 felines, it is then she turns a gimlet eye to her mother’s trap. “Nobody except a cat gets out,” she laments.
“Grey Gardens” has sophisticated humor, witty Cole Porter-esque lyrics, fine dramatic performances and all the schadenfreude of a prominent family’s personal debacle. It’s tough to handle, but so is the truth.