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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 fiancé 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.

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