Grey Gardens

gret gardensBased on the 1975 documentary film, Grey Gardens is the mostly non-fiction dramatized story of the decline of two of America’s aristocratic royalty and their descent into ruin. They are alone, and yet together, both heartbroken.

Daina Michelle Griffith as Big Edie in Act 1

Daina Michelle Griffith as Big Edie in Act 1

Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Little Edie are two legendary women from an upper-crust New England family, the outlying cousins of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. The Bouvier women are all stunningly beautiful, and the Edies are no exception.

Act One is set on the day of the spirited Little Edies’ grand 1941 engagement party to the handsome Navy man Joe Kennedy, Jr. The soiree, held at the Beale house known as Grey Gardens, has been planned down to the most minute detail by Little Edie’s overbearing and jealous mother, Big Edie, who has visions of fame as a songstress and has included her personal performance of nine musical numbers in the grand reception plan. She will be accompanied by her resident pianist and “confidant” George Gould Strong. Thanks to big Edie’s reveal of the little Edie’s questionable youthful indiscretions, Joe calls off the engagement,  just as the guest begin to arrive. The Edie’s dysfunctional relationship is cemented, and their contentious descent into isolation begins.

Act Two forwards to 1973, The two Edies are living alone. Grey Gardens has become nothing more than a large, bug-infested and cat-riddled garbage dump. Big Edie is now confined to bed with her cats. Little Edie has become even more eccentric. Both are haunted by their long-lost dreams of love and fame.

Daina Michelle Griffith as Little Edie in Act 2

Daina Michelle Griffith as Little Edie in Act 2

The musicals structure is bipolar in nature. Act One has the feel of a traditional musical,  perhaps a bit too long with an overdose of mindless songs.  This act involves conjecture on the part of the writer Doug Wright, along with a good dose of imagination on the part of the Beales. As an audience, we are passively looking into their lives as if we were a drone hovering outside Grey Gardens’ windows.

Act Two changes our perspective. The writers now have the documentary film as source material. As we return from intermission, it is as if we are going to a different show of the same material, or the writers have changed between acts. Act Two is more contemporary and genuine. Edie’s imagination runs wild, and her delusions come to the forefront, all captured for us to see. This act takes on more of the feel of the documentary. The Edie’s now speak directly to the audience as we shift from distant observers to being fully engaged in their conversations. Their songs change to a more tragic, insightful, and yet still funny, place.

Front Porch Theatricals has established themselves as THE boutique theatre company that relishes taking on complex, richly layered and challenging shows. Once again, Front Porch earns its marks with this production of Grey Gardens. Director Robyne Parrish and the producers have brought together an incredibly talented group of actors and designers. Parrish brings out the best of them, showcasing both the material and their interpretive talents.

Chad Elder as George Gould Strong with Daina Michelle Griffith

Chad Elder as George Gould Strong with Daina Michelle Griffith

Grey Gardens is a show rich in complex female characters, from the dysfunctional Edies to the young Jacqueline Bouvier, the future Jackie Kennedy and her sister Lee Radziwill. In the transition between acts, from the 40’s to 70’s, Daina Michelle Griffith plays both Big Edith and Little Edie.  Beth Bush plays the older Edith in Act Two, and Kaylie Mae Wallace the Little Edie in the first act. Wallace shines in “Going Places” with Joe Kennedy (Daniel Mayhak). Griffith is instrumental in the audience’s transition from observer to a participant; a house guest if you will, or the documentary camera, as she draws us in at the top of Act Two, expounding on her “Revolutionary Costume for Today”. Bush’s Big Edie poignantly shares with us her feelings on growing old and how she did the best with what she had in the touching “The Cake I Had”.

As they should, the Edies get the most of character development in the script and the lyrics by Michael Korie.  Chad Elder plays the alcoholic, freeloading accompanist and Big Edie’s companion / possible homosexual lover George Gould Strong with just the right mix of disdain and camp.  The house is taken care of by the Butler, Brooks Sr. and later his son Brooks Jr.. who tends to the deteriorating home.  Both father and son are capably played by Ryan Jackson, whose expressions convey his disbelief in his predicament.

DSC_0130Set designer Johnmichael Bohach delivers a nice mix of opulence that transitions beautifully to the squalor that Grey Gardens becomes. Andrew David Ostrowski’s lighting compliments and enhances the set, however, those “dramatic” lighting changes and unsteady follow spot work around the musical numbers in the first act keep reminding me I’m sitting in the theatre. Angela Baughman’s Sound Design works except a few missed mic turn-ons an odd tingling sound at the beginning of Act Two, that may or may not have been of her doing.

Costumes are a critical element in conveying the ladies decline and Little Edie’s eccentricity. Designer Julianne D’Errico accurately recreates Little Edie’s unique sense of fashion as captured in the documentary. The Front Porch team solves the age-old problem of where to put the orchestra at the New Hazlett by placing them under the stadium seating. Music Director Douglas Levine’s band couldn’t sound better, and the cast’s rich singing voices punch through.

I left feeling there was so much more to learn about this story. How did the rest of the family come to abandon them? Whatever happened to George Gould? Why did Brooks Sr. and Jr. stick around? Why did Jackie Kennedy Onassis wait until the story of the Edies broke in the national press to come to help them? What happened to the house known as Grey Gardens? I  wondered why this was a musical rather than a play with more richly developed characters and answers.

Good, compelling theatre leaves you wanting answers. Front Porch Theatrical with their mission to bring quality theatre to Pittsburgh’s audiences, actors, designers, and directors succeed again, on all fronts, with Grey Gardens.

 Grey Gardens by Front Porch Theatricals and Directed by Robyne Parrish is at the New Hazlett Theatre now through August 26th.

For tickets visit https://www.showclix.com/events/12886

Photos by Deana Muro

Categories: Archived Reviews

Tags: , , ,

%d bloggers like this: