By Christopher Heide
In the wake of the immensely successful hit musical of 2012, First Date, The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT – A Contemporary Theatre join forces on their third collaboration: the cult Broadway hit Grey Gardens. A fairy tale told in reverse, this poignant new musical is based on the fascinating 1970s documentary revealing the lives of Big Edie and Little Edie Beale, close relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
The acclaimed Broadway musical combines high drama with a brilliant score, taking audiences on an unforgettable journey from the glamorous home of two East Hampton socialites in the 1940s to a crumbling 28- room mansion housing the two notorious recluses. What caused their fall from the heights of American aristocracy to the bizarre (but frequently hilarious) world of delusion and fantasy mother and daughter came to inhabit? That’s the story – and the mystery – of Grey Gardens. Tony-nominated Broadway star Patti Cohenour (Phantom of the Opera, Light in the Piazza) takes the stage in a tour- de-force performance, joined by Jessica Skerritt and Suzy Hunt in one of the most memorable musicals of the Seattle theater season. Many veteran performers fill the rest of the cast, including Mark Anders, Allen Fitzpatrick and Matt Owen.
Visually mesmerizing and creatively, yet minimally, staged, Grey Gardens is a triumph for the ACT theatre. Performed in its iconic theater-in-the-round, this particular production is visceral, intimate and emotionally evocative in its heartbreaking depiction of the uncomfortably codependent relationship between the two women. The twisted relationship is undoubtedly all-too-familiar. While the cast gives performances filled with nuance and impeccably timed humor, Cohenour is a spectacular standout. She displays impressive gravitas and range; in fact, she deftly portrays both women in the show, emphasizing with a toxic relationship that is laced with undertones of mental instability.
"I think it's unspoken that that Big Edie knows her daughter is schizophrenic, or fears she is. She kept her close because she didn't want to grow old alone, but also to protect her daughter from being in a marriage as repressive and miserable as was her own was," says Cohenour. "To me these women are not Halloween characters. The director and I've talked about how these women weren't tragic, but survivors. In the middle of all that mayhem and filth, they found some happiness." This is a sentiment that poignantly resonates with gritty realities of modern society.
Mayhem and filth is almost an understatement when describing the meticulous detail used to stage this production. Lacking traditional set pieces in the aforementioned theater-in-the -round, impeccable attention was given to the smaller set pieces and disheveled costuming, all of which enhanced the downtrodden effect of the Grey Gardens estate as presented in the latter half of the show. Dirty dishes lined with moldy cat food, moldy newspapers and ragged clothing simply serve to enhance the world that the outstanding performances helped to create.
Another present surprise also came from the actors. The strong booming voices of all of the performers lead to the smart choice to stage this production without microphones. This too helped to solidify the time periods presented, as well as made the performers the spectacle of the show, rather than unexpected technical difficulties. The nuance and intelligent humor were also a welcome departure; in contrast with many other current productions that seem to employ a shock-and-awe approach to theater.
Grey Gardens plays until May 26th at ACT. Tickets are available online at www.5thavenue.org or at www.acttheatre.org.