Live Arts production of Grey Gardens is a beautiful musing on interiority

Kate Monaghan as Big Edie and Perry Payne Millner as Little Edie in the second act of Live Arts’ production of
Grey Gardens. Image: Martyn Kyle Kate Monaghan as Big Edie and Perry Payne Millner as Little Edie in the second act of Live Arts’ production of Grey Gardens. Image: Martyn Kyle

The façade of a large house spans the stage, partly obscured by white drop cloths on which the shadows of trees create a ghostly overlay. The year is 1973, and an elderly woman in a yellow one-piece bathing suit, quilted housecoat, and striped sunhat wobbles out onto the gray clapboard porch.

Radio static cuts through the air as a warbling announcer describes the health department raid uncovering the unfathomable squalor of Grey Gardens, the 28-room Hamptons party house where Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (“Big Edie”) and her grown daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale (“Little Edie”), live alongside cats, raccoons, fleas, and hundreds of pounds of garbage and debris. The Beales are the aunt and first cousin, respectively, of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and as a result, the discovery of their strange misfortune makes a media splash.

“How could members of American royalty,” the radio announcer asks, “fall so far so fast?”

Grey Gardens—a musical with book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korie, based on the 1975 documentary film by David and Albert Maysles—presents two sides of the same curious coin. On one is the picture of Grey Gardens’ heyday, when the house was glamorous, its women beautiful, and Little Edie was bound for liberation and a marriage to Joe Kennedy. On the other is the home’s startling shift into dereliction and decay, the structure overrun by cats and creeper vines, its inhabitants trapped in codependence and squalor.

Live Arts’ production is funny and touching. Honestly, I cried a little. Hats off to director Bree Luck for creating a poignant show that allows the triumphs of joy and inner strength to overcome pain and sorrow. The show’s few imperfections (a long pause, an off beat) are lovely reminders that authenticity isn’t, and shouldn’t be, flawless.

Kristin Baltes and Heather Powell nurture strong song and dance numbers from this all-volunteer cast, and the large crew also deserves praise for building costumes and a set that look remarkably true to real life photographs.

The first act pokes fun at old money mores, its humor propelled by the arched-eyebrow snark of Chris Patrick’s Gould and the situational irony of the script. Imagine young Jackie Bouvier and sister Lee bouncing in time to their auntie’s appallingly racist show tunes. Determined to distance herself from Grey Gardens, Sarah Edwards’ young Little Edie reveals both independence and love for her mother beneath dueling roles as performer, lover, and dutiful child. She also nails the real character’s broad New York accent and bent-wrist-on-hip physical mannerisms.

Perry Payne Millner, who plays spotlight-seeking Big Edie, establishes a firm counterpoint, offering layers of neediness, brayed off-key arias for impromptu audiences, and a tragic, passive melancholy when faced with real-world problems. Her palpable desire for positive feedback secures her future stranglehold on Little Edie.

In the grimier, darker second act of the play, Millner soars, this time as adult Little Edie. She sings and moves exactly like a grown-up version of Edwards’ character, and although she bemoans her return to Grey Gardens and the obligation she feels to care for her mother, she looks at the world with eyes full of stardust and radiates tremulous joie de vivre. You might not expect wreck and ruin to result in fierce self-love, but even though Little Edie is lost in her mind, she never wavers from her own beliefs.

Big Edie (Kate Monaghan) has mellowed, in a manner of speaking. She’s more prone to holler for her girl’s help, but Monaghan imbues her with contentment, as she trills songs about a life well-lived and deflects responsibility for Little Edie’s unhappiness. The rest of the cast populates the shambles, relieving tension with fun musical numbers (there are singing cats and a church choir!) and inspiring songs like “Jerry Likes My Corn,” which is hilarious, sad, and borderline crazy.

The cats and the filth provide non-subtle hints that these ladies have some problems, but is it a case of a high society refusal to empty the litter box or a physical manifestation of the punishment for women who disengage from social norms?

Is Big Edie a narcissist who unwittingly primed her daughter for a loveless life? Should absent fathers and brothers share the burden? Is Little Edie a desperate victim of circumstance or the (un)happy product of her own “staunchness”?

Like the estate named for its cement walls and foggy seashore, this show is a study of nebulous grays. Little Edie struggles to delineate love from duty and artistry from mental illness, and we’re left to grapple with our voyeuristic tendencies, our hunger for tabloid rumor and fallen celebrity. We’re quick to judge, to vote “normal” or “not,” but why? Caught between freedom and family love, where would you draw the line?

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