In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy opined, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," which would certainly apply to the unusual—to say the least—clan at the heart of Grey Gardens, receiving a stunning production by the Chester Theatre Group.
The family at the heart of Grey Gardens (named after their East Hampton estate) is the Beale family, most notably Edith Beale and her daughter, known as Edie. While you might not recognize the family surname, you will be familiar with Edith's maiden name, Bouvier, which is the same as the former First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (the women are her aunt and cousin).
What we here in the United States are given to think of as Royalty, albeit of the social, not the hierarchical, kind, the Bouvier Beales are wont to utter such fancy words as sobriquet, de rigueur, masticate, pâté and major domo in a toney accent, as they swan around their mansion's salon in 1941 and, in Act II, their bedroom in 1973. However, be forewarned, despite their fancy ways, the Bouvier Beales are bitchy, cruel and deluded, thus unhappy in their own way!
Based on the true story of the Bouvier Beale women—they were discovered to be living in squalor in a 28-room decaying mansion with 52 cats, a building that had been condemned by the Board of Health—the serio-comic musical by Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) opened on Broadway, was nominated for 10 Tony Awards and snagged one each for Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson, playing Big Edith and Little Edie, respectively.
Grey Gardens is a sad tale of thwarted ambition, neglect and outright spite. The play is set in the same house but at two periods almost 30 years apart. In Act I, an engagement party for Little Edie and her beau Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. (JFK's older brother) is derailed when Big Edie spills the beans to Joe about her daughter's wild past. Too, both women aspire to the stage: Big Edie as a singer and Little Edie as an actress. Whether the two have any talent is dubious; besides, in 1941 it was scandalous and unseemly for a woman of their social standing to perform for money before an audience. Fast-forward to 1973; the two women, aging and ill (mentally and physically) are imprisoned in the wreck of their grand home, sniping at each other and dreaming of what might have been, and usually getting it all wrong. When the news about the Bouvier Beale's sordid situation surfaced in the news, Jackie Onassis declined comment, saying it was a "family matter."
Once again, Chester Theatre Group has tackled a challenging play, pulled out all the stops and given us a Broadway-quality musical—all without one single Actors Equity performer in the cast! Directors Jeffrey Fiorello and Mark Happel have elicited performances from the cast—especially the two principal actors—that make them annoying, yet very sympathetic. Every inch of the small playing space (along with the four corners of the little black box theater) is utilized; in Act I, it suggests a shabby chic living room; in Act II, the claustrophobia of a dilapidated bedroom is palpable.
That the actors are superb raises the performance and production level way above what one might expect from community theater, but it is in line with what the Chester Theatre Group usually gives us. Although neither Bouvier Beale woman achieved a successful career as a singer/actress, Barbara Haag (right), who gets to play both the matriarch Edith and her daughter Edie, is certainly a class act. In the first act, Haag is imperious and manipulative as Big Edith, planning her daughter's party to the last detail while planning to hijack the festivities for her own ends. In the second act, she's Little Edie, giving weird pronouncements about fashion, complaining about having to come home to care for her mother, and just being an all-around drama queen. She takes hold of the audience by the throats in both acts and knocks 'em down with an absolutely marvelous performance as both women. If she doesn't win an award from NJACT, I don't know what will.
Barbi McGuire (right) is equally as fine as a old and querulous Big Edie, living in the past, cooking corn on a hot plate and eating cat food as pâté! Little Edie says she came home to care for her mother, but the old lady kept on breathing! It seems that "only a cat gets out" of Grey Gardens.
As young Little Edie, Sandy Taylor is luminous, with her blonde hair, yellow frocks and lovely voice. Our hearts break for her when her mother brings about an end to her dreams of marrying Joe and living in the White House. Thomas Cioppettini is perfect as the über-prep Joe Kennedy, complete with a Boston accent and scrubbed good looks; as Jerry, the dimwitted youth who comes in to help the two women, he's dopey in a lovable way. Robert Jacobson (left) oozes suavity as George Gould Strong, Big Edie's accompanist and Olympic-class hanger-on, and Rich Maloy (right) brings down the house with his trenchant evaluations of his daughter's scheming ways and lifestyle. Alistair Williams conveys the spit and polish appropriate to Brooks Sr./Jr., Grey Gardens' butler/servant; his kindness really rings true in the second act. And finally, Hannah Curtis as Jackie Bouvier and Julianne Grillo as Lee Bouvier sure look comfortable onstage; they inhabit their roles without the precociousness so often projected by child actors.
A nine-piece orchestra under the direction of Clifford Parrish provide wonderful accompaniment for these actors' voices and delivery. Two memorable songs are "Two Peas in a Pod," sung in Act I by the two Edies (top) and brought to ironic fruition in Act II; and the haunting "Another Winter in a Summer Town," which underscores the loneliness felt by these two daft women living in a "28-room litter box." And the costumes by Scaramouche convey what "was" and what "now is" with incredible attention to detail. Get a load of the oddments put together by Edie in Act II; they’ll blow your mind!
I didn't see Grey Gardens on Broadway, but after seeing the Chester Theatre Group's production, I don't think I missed much. Christine Ebersole, move over and make way for Barbara Haag. She's that good! This production is a must-see, so get on out to the hills of Morris County before July 24 for a theatrical experience you won't easily forget.
Grey Gardens will be performed Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 PM and Sunday, July 17 & 24, at 2 PM in the Black River Playhouse, Grove Street, Chester. For information and tickets, call the box office at 908.879.7304 or visit online at www.chestertheatregroup.org .
Photos by Lamont Hill.