Grey Gardens

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Grey Gardens—No Ordinary Dysfunction

-Theatre Review by Diana Mumford 

Charlottesville’s Live Arts’ production of the musical, Grey Gardens, now playing March 7-29, is a harrowing display of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. The show is based on the 1975 documentary of the same name about two formerly wealthy American women, a mother and her daughter, who fall into impoverished squalor. They continue to live in their vast estate as it falls to ruin and neglect, the severity of which warrants a health department raid. The story, by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korrie, originally premiered on Broadway in 2006. The unbelievable lives of these two women weave an interesting story that proves truth is stranger than fiction.

Directed by Bree Luck, the play begins with gauzy white curtains swathing almost the entire set. Edith (Kate Monaghan) shuffles onto her porch with the aid of a cane, her figure only partially obscured by a yellow bathing suit and robe. Her appearance and her banter with her daughter, Little Edie (Perry Payne Millner now and in the second act), heard only offstage, gives the audience a glimpse of the eccentricities to come.

When the white curtains are pulled aside in a flourish to reveal a minimalist set with a piano taking center stage, the audience has been transported thirty years into the past. The journey into this family’s madness begins.

This first act depicts Grey Gardens in its prime, imagining how Big and Little Edie’s relationship used to be. The dialogue revolves around preparations for Little Edie and her fiancé Joseph Kennedy Jr’s (Jonathan Karns), upcoming engagement party. Edith (Millner, in the first act) is insistent on performing a few tunes for the party (musical direction by Kristin Baltes), and perform she does. Millner has lovely, strong voice, perfect for the spotlight. Monaghan and the rest of the cast hold their own, as well.

This act highlights the dysfunctional family dynamic of a mother with a perpetual need to be in the spotlight and a daughter desperate to escape her mother’s shadow. Little Edie’s absentee father has been replaced by George (Chris Patrick), platonic companion to and pianist for her mother. In Big Edie’s house of strays, Little Edie plays second fiddle for her mother’s affections.

Little Edie thinks her engagement is the key to finally leaving her mother’s house. When Edith discovers Little Edie’s fiancé doesn’t support her daughter’s show business dreams, she ruins her daughter’s engagement by sensationalizing Little Edie’s experience with men. Little Edie runs away from home, only to return as her mother’s caretaker for the second act.

The second act holds true to the film documentary. During a set change, the gauzy curtains are put back into place. Once drawn again, they reveal the innards of Grey Gardens, a decrepit house, now teeming with refuse and tokens of Little Edie’s life gone by.  Misfortune has characterized her life, leaving her a recluse in her family home.

A grown up Little Edie emerges. The sweet daughter heard offstage in the beginning of act one is no more. Instead, audiences will have the impression that they are spying on an older woman’s intimate moment of crisis. There is a hole in the wall. Little Edie is seen baring her soul, waxing poetic about her unsuccessful attempts to leave Grey Gardens and her feelings of emotional entrapment. Though her questions to the audience are rhetorical, her earnest and soulful eyes implore the audience to help.

Here, the dysfunction takes a perverse turn. Once-perfectly coifed actors are transformed into terrifying cats, creating confusion and demonstrating how far Grey Gardens has fallen into disarray. The show spirals wonderfully into the absurd with a full commitment from the cast. Monaghan’s portrayal of Big Edie in particular is lovely and endearing. Her warbling about her handyman, Jerry (Karns), loving how she prepares her corn among bedbugs is ridiculous, delightful, and sobering all at once.

As wonderful as the acting was, there was some confusion in the staging itself—the characters exit stage left and emerge stage right via Grey Gardens’ front door to enter the front lawn. This led to a few awkward transitions. There were also the overtly racist songs  in the first act (indicative of the clueless nature of the characters) that made the audience wince. The New York Times originally called the song Hominy Grits a “hilarious minstrel-show paean,” but watching an upper-class white woman pantomime the southern black mammy stereotype for laughs was truly cringe-worthy.

The play is full of endearing characters, despite their flaws. Bree Luck has sensitively recreated the times and trials faced by the real life Edies, without parodying their lives. Even in the thick of madness, the characters are believable. Obviously, a lot of work went into this musical. The show is filled with great performances, hilarious and touching. Audiences will leave the theatre humming a satisfied tune.


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