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‘Grey Gardens’ Blooms at Actor’s Express

2009 September 1
Sarah Turner and Justin McGough at Little Edie and Joe Kennedy
Sarah Turner and Justin McGough as Edie and Joe Kennedy Jr.

No stranger to scandal and controversy, Jacqueline (Bouvier) Kennedy Onassis’s family is in the midst of it all in “Grey Gardens,” now playing at Atlanta’s Actor’s Express. But the connection to the Kennedys and the Bouviers is only part of what makes this a piquant, juicy musical. The story features sabotage, betrayal and divorce, while Edith Bouvier Beale spends improvidently, causing her and her co-dependent daughter to slide from high society to wretched squalor.

Socialites Edith Bouvier Beale—Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s aunt—and beautiful Edie live in an opulent 28-room mansion with servants in East Hampton on Long Island. Mr. Beale, a conservative, absentee, hypercritical father, resides in Manhattan and ultimately divorces Edith. George Gould Strong lives off the Beales at their home, known as Grey Gardens, where he plays piano and accompanies Edith, an amateur singer who performs at her house parties. At age 24, on the verge of obtaining her dream of leaving Grey Gardens and her eccentric mother, Edie prepares to wed Joe Kennedy Jr. But Edith has other plans.

Thirty-two years later, it’s 1973, and Edith and Edie still live at Grey Gardens. The servants are gone, there is no plumbing, and the house is infested with mice, raccoons, fleas and 52 cats. They live in only three rooms of the house, and bed linens and clothes have not been washed in months. Neighbors have complained about the stench, and the health department has threatened the couple with eviction.

While the first act drags, the pace picks up in the second act. However, it is there that the director and the actors playing the two Edies have overlooked a serious glitch that impedes the audience’s understanding of who the characters are. In the first act, Edie speaks standard English with hardly a trace of a New York accent. In the second act, Edie talks with a heavy, nasal Long Island dialect. The pair needs to collaborate on what kind of dialect to speak so they portray the same person.

Other than that mishap, the acting and singing of the Ediths and Edies—Sarah Turner as Edie at age 24, Kathleen McManus as Edith at age 81, and Jill Hames as mother Edith at age 47 in the first act and daughter Edie at age 56 in the second act—are so superb that any one of them could play their roles in New York. Additionally, Wade Benson, who plays Major Bouvier and Norman Vincent Peale, is another standout.

Perhaps it’s schadenfreude that has made Green Gardens the talk of media and critics around the nation. The story has been written about copiously and filmed for a documentary and an HBO movie.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright wrote “Grey Gardens,” and Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, respectively, wrote the music and lyrics. Based on the 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles, the play opened to rave reviews in New York in 2006. It received an Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical.

After moving to Broadway, the show was nominated for 10 Tony Awards—won three of them—and was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album. Hames’ singing voice comes close to that of Christine Ebersole’s on the original cast album.

“Grey Gardens,” the HBO movie starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, was released in April this year and received 17 Emmy nominations. The documentary, which I think is more interesting than the play, will be screened at Actor’s Express Sunday, Sept. 13 at 7 p.m. Artifacts from Grey Gardens will be exhibited on display. “Grey Gardens” runs through Oct. 10 at Actor’s Express.

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