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Friday, March 29, 2013


If you see the musical Grey Gardens—running March 16–June 2 at ACT- A Contemporary Theater, in Seattle—prepare to ponder an assortment of mixed reactions. Sometimes I laughed out loud at the humor, and other times I felt my skin crawl, either from actual lines and scenes or the subtle truths they contained. This show offers contrasting impressions again and again, and my dual reactions to many of its aspects seem as much at odds with each other as the before and after pictures of its characters, who change drastically from Act One to Act Two.
l-r "Big Edie" (Suzy Hunt) and "Little Edie" Beale (Patti Cohenour) in Grey Gardens, a collaboration between The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT – A Contemporary Theatre.
Photo: Tracy Martin
Grey Gardens tells the story of two beyond-eccentric women, a mother and daughter—both named Edith “Edie” Beale—who live in filth among numerous yowling cats, and even intruder raccoons, in a dilapidated house called “Grey Gardens.” They didn’t start out that way. At the beginning of the story, the house was the centerpiece of a beautiful estate and they lived in luxury as members of high society—but also as subjects of repression and control.
l-r "Little Edie" (Jessica Skerritt) and her mother, Edith Bouvier Beale (Patti Cohenour) in Grey Gardens, the third show in collaboration between The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT – A Contemporary Theatre.
Photo: Tracy Martin

Both of them had wanted to be entertainers, but whether it was a matter of talent or the fact that the men in their lives didn’t approve, the dream never happened. The mother—before her fall into disgrace—never missed an opportunity to sing in public. She had even been recorded. But her singing ended up confined to her own home, where she spent hours beside the piano with her live-in male friend and dependent, the pianist, George Gould Strong (Mark Anders). The daughter, too, dreamed of the stage, but on the day of her planned engagement party that never happened, her fiancĂ© made it clear that, once married, she’d only be allowed to entertain that way a couple of times a year, at home, on holidays.
l-r George Gould Strong (Mark Anders) accompanies Edith Bouvier Beale (Patti Cohenour) in Grey Gardens, the third show in collaboration between The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT – A Contemporary Theatre.
Photo: Tracy Martin
We’ve all heard reports in the news about reclusive “cat ladies” whose accumulations of pets and garbage result in them living under hideous circumstances until death, or until public health and animal welfare authorities intervene. The difference here is that these two women, “Big Edie” Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale—are not fictional characters. 
The elder Edith was the aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and “Little Edie,” Jackie’s cousin, claimed to have once been engaged to Joseph Kennedy. Act One is set in 1941, opening on the day of the engagement party. Jessica Skerritt plays the debutante Little Edie, and Broadway veteran Patti Cohenour plays Big Edie (although she wasn’t called “Big Edie” until the second part.) But in Act Two, set in 1972, Cohenour plays the no-longer-a-debutante daughter, now in her fifties, and Suzy Hunt plays Big Edie, now the elderly mother. All three women were amazing in their roles. In fact, this show offers some of the finest acting I’ve ever seen at ACT.

Patti Cohenour as “Little Edie” Beale in Grey Gardens, the third show in collaboration between The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT – A Contemporary Theatre.
Photo: Tracy Martin

Fearful of losing her daughter and living alone in old age, the mother frightens off all suitors, including Kennedy. The two women are each protective of, yet resentful and dependent upon, the other. They feel jealousy and frustration and nurture illusions of their pasts (Big Edie’s “perfect marriage” that left her divorced and nearly penniless and Little Edie’s supposedly thwarted career as a performer, even though she never really had the talent.)
The story of the Beale women’s fall from life in a privileged society during the 1940s, to the depths of squalor by the 1970s, has fascinated Americans for years. Their horrifying living conditions first came to light in an article in The National Enquirer and a cover story in New York Magazine, which led to investigation. Intrigued, Albert and David Maysles looked into the situation themselves and produced the documentary film “Grey Gardens,” released in 1975. There was also a move in 2009, by the same name, starring Drew Barrymore. Now, collaboration between ACT-A Contemporary Theatre and The 5th Avenue—so fruitful in their joint production of “First Date”—brings this story to the stage in the form of a musical, for better or worse.
l-r The Bouvier cousins - Edie (Jessica Skerritt), Jackie (Analiese Emerson Guettinger), and Lee (Montserrat Fleck) in Grey Gardens, the third show in collaboration between The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT – A Contemporary Theatre.
Photo: Tracy Martin
One could make the point that since both of the Beale women loved music and singing, they would have loved seeing a musical version of their story, loved the attention, loved being on stage in this way. But does it really work? The show includes some great songs, ranging from funny to poignant, but I wish it could have been a combination of spoken dialog and songs. The dialog, remarkably true to the 1975 documentary, did not seem comfortable as lyrics. And I didn’t always feel comfortable listening to them, no matter how fine the singing.

As I watched GreyGardens, I found myself feeling compassion one minute and repulsion the next, regarding the two Edies. I still can’t decide if I view them as pathetic victims of undeserved misfortune and (at least in the daughter’s case) apparent mental illness, or just as spoiled socialites too lazy or incompetent to live without servants, and therefore living as disgusting slobs. Or maybe it’s neither. In Act One, the expectations of society, and the men in their lives, restricted and repressed them. In Act Two, poverty and the complete rejection of society’s expectations, including cleanliness, offered an odd kind of freedom, perhaps even greater happiness.
Although sickly co-dependent and frequently bickering, they obviously love each other. But is the mother’s interference self-centered, or does she see the daughter as so mentally ill that she must be protected, even if from the bad experience of marriage she herself had? After the break up with Kennedy, Little Edie left for New York, but returned in a few years because she could not support herself. One of the most powerful lines in the story, weighty for all it implies about marriage and the status of women during those decades, came when Big Eddie counters her daughter’s complaints with a statement about how a person can never have freedom if they are being supported.


Suzy Hunt as "Big Edie" Beale in Grey Gardens, the third show in collaboration between The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT – A Contemporary Theatre.
Photo: Tracy Martin

I’m a big fan of Allen Fitzpatrick, who played “Major” Bouvier, Big Edie’s father in Act One, and his performance added an extra dose of humor and delight. Mark Anders did a great job as companion and pianist to the elder Edith in the first half. I liked Ekello J. Harrid, Jr. as both the butler Brooks Sr. in Act One and Brooks Jr. in Act Two. The two young actresses Analiese Emerson Guettinger and Monstserrat Fleck, as the girls Jackie and Lee Bouvier, showed great confidence on the stage. I’ve enjoyed Matt Owen in several roles at The 5th Avenue and in this one, as Joe Kennedy too. However, one weakness in this musical was the accents. To me, they didn’t sound authentic.

This is one “cat lady” story that purrs at you one minute and then hisses the next, leaving you as mixed up as Little Edie, whose riches-to-rags saga carries some pretty deep themes. Even the funny songs like “Marry Well” will make you think about personal freedom and compromise. In spite of my mixed feelings about the Beale women themselves and whether or not the story of Grey Gardens should have become a musical, I would recommend it. If nothing else, the outstanding performances by Coheneour and Hunt in Act Two will grab you. In fact, Cohenour’s portrayal of Little Edie captivated and intrigued me more than the real woman I saw in the documentary. She knows how to engage the audience. Watch out. She might make eye contact with you, her crazy character’s locked gaze making you squirm, even while you know you are too fascinated to look away.

Thursday, March 28, 2013


Most of us agree that the arts are important, but Artistic Director Melanie Kirk-Stauffer of Dance Theatre Northwest, in University Place, WA, stresses that the arts are also part of education. In fact, she is giving back to the community through a series of four FREE dance performances called Arts Are Education. All take place in the Tacoma area, three at elementary schools and one at Narrows Glen, a retirement and assisted living community, and all are free, open to the public, and handicapped accessible. The first is this Friday, March 29. (See complete schedule and locations below.)

"We have been rehearsing for weeks getting ready for this series of Arts Are Education performances,” she said. ”I believe it is essential that young people in our area have exposure to ballet based classical and contemporary dance.”

DTNW Company dancers Chhay Mam and Katie Newmann       photo by Maks Zakharov

As a dancer, dance teacher, and internationally recognized lecturer and choreographer teacher for many years, Kirk-Stauffer has lived with dance as her life’s passion since childhood and loves to share that joy and give back to her community. She has seen firsthand how important it is to bring the arts to schools, especially at a time when there is so little money available and arts programs wrongly sink lower on the lists of priorities, in spite of the benefits.

In fact, research proves those benefits. According to an organization called Americans for the Arts, of which she is a member, students with an education rich in art:

      ·         Have better grade point averages
      ·         Score better on standardized tests in reading and math
      ·         Have lower dropout rates

 Americans for the Arts also states that:“Young people who consistently participate in comprehensive, sequential, and rigorous arts programs are:

      ·         4 times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement
      ·         3 times more likely to be elected to class office within their schools
      ·         4 times more likely to participate in a math and science fair
      ·         3 times more likely to win an award for school attendance
      ·         4 times more likely to win an award for writing an essay or poem

Lauren Trodahl - DTNW Adanced Junior Dance Ensemble member  Photo by Maks Zakharov

The Arts Are Education performances feature DTNW’s professional dance company members Katie Neumann and Chhay Mam, along with guest artists and student performers. This year, the series offers excerpts from Swan Lake. For many school children, and even a surprising number of adults, this kind of live dance performance in often the first they’ve ever experienced. And they love it.

“Our community outreach programs are fun and inspiring for all involved," Kirk-Stauffer said. It’s true. I’ve been to them and hope you can catch a performance too, at one of these times and locations.

Friday, March 29: Edison Elementary School, 5830 S. Pine St., Tacoma, WA 98409 at 2:15 p.m.

Friday, April 5: Christensen Elementary School, 10232 Barnes Lane S., Pierce WA 98444 at 2:45 p.m.

Saturday, April 6: Narrows Glen, 8201 6th Ave., Tacoma, WA  98406 at 7 p.m.

Friday, April 19: Sheridan Elementary School 5317 McKinley Ave., Tacoma, WA 98404 at 1:45 p.m. and 2:45 p.m.

For more information, visit their website: or call 253-778-6534.

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Monday, March 18, 2013


When I go to the Pike Place Market in Seattle, I sense the presence of ghosts. I feel the spirits of two happy little boys dressed in the style of the early 1920s who giggle, hide, and chase each other among the farmers' stalls. I like to believe these ghost exist, because if they do, one of them is my father.

Oh, I know. That sounds unbelievable. Obviously, he didn't die in childhood. He grew to be a man, married my mother, and they had seven children of their own over a span of twenty years. I'm the sixth. But he did play at the market as a young boy during a period of time between 1918 and 1921. (To learn more about the history of Pike Place Market click here.)

During two or three of those years, my father lived with his grandmother on 40 acres near the town of Poulsbo, on the west side of Puget Sound, surrounded by Scandinavian immigrants. Early every Saturday morning, his best friend's mother would catch one of the old wooden Mosquito Fleet steamers, bound for Seattle, where she would sell her chickens at the Pike Place Market. She always brought along her own young son and his pal (my future father) to help her.

Together, they carried the chickens up the many steps from the dock and then set up shop. However, after that chore was done, the boys had the run of the market all day long. It was one of Dad's best memories.

My father died a few years ago at the age of 96. Those carefree hours of youth all far behind him, he approached his final days with pain and suffering. It hurts to think of that sad time. When I wander through the market now, as I did last week, I remember what he told me. I love to believe his spirit, as a boy, plays there once again, peeking out from behind buckets of tulips or displays of produce.

I imagine that I might catch a glimpse of him smiling and waving at me from around a corner just before disappearing from sight. I picture his dark curls and kind eyes, how he must have delighted in all the colors, sounds, smells, and people. He would have been curious about items offered for sale that he'd never seen before, just as I am now.

These days, no one would allow children to scamper out of their sight at the market, and it's much too crowded for anyone to dash about like I suspect the boys did. And even in their play, I'm sure they were never destructive or naughty,having a strict upbringing. I know how important it was to him that we were taught to behave and respect the property of others.

But he would have known a kind of freedom and joy few children experience any more, the kind we enjoyed, at least to the extend that common sense would allow. He and our mother gave us the gift of unstructured time and the idea of using our own imaginations to fill it.

On the day I went to the Pike Place Market, the sun came out and the air warmed. With all the flowers for sale, plus daffodils blooming on the roof edges, it felt like spring. Even in a place well beyond a century old, I saw the renewal of life and the comforting cycle of the seasons all around me.

So, in memory of Dad, his boyhood friend, the young mother with her chickens, the steamers on Puget Sound, and all the ghosts of all the people who have wandered the market for generations, I dedicate this post.
And I offer these photos of a few of the sights to be seen there right now. This is a lovely time of year to visit Pike Place Market. And if you happen to glimpse a vision of a handsome little fellow wearing knickers and a newsboy cap, please tell him I said to rest in peace, but only after he has had his fill of fun.

This gorgeous piece of artwork made from pressed flowers is the work of Carolyn Crouchet. Her booth at the market is called "Full Bloom Creations" and you can find her in the north end where arts and crafts are sold. Be sure to see her website:
Full Bloom Creations

All photos by Candace Brown  
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Friday, March 1, 2013


If this blog post had been written in ancient Rome, I would be wishing you a happy new year today instead of this pre-spring greeting. The month of March, originally called Martius and named after Mars, the God of War, appeared at the beginning of the original Roman calendar which had only 304 days and no month designations for winter. The calendar used today, known as the Gregorian calendar, did not come about until 1582.

Here in Tacoma, March is the month that can’t make up its mind. After the cold and drabness of winter, we long for spring. March teases us with budding shrubs and bare soil, a mix of rotting leaves and daffodils, blue sky and rainstorms, bird songs and fog horns, and last year, snow. But we welcome the lengthening days and milder temperatures and wander parks and garden looking for uplifting signs of a new season.

I looked back through my photos of March from various years and wanted to share a few of those with you today. Even if the sun never came out at your house today, you might enjoy this digital walk outdoors. And I kind of like the idea of a new year starting in March. Let's celebrate!



All photos by Candace Brown

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