Generational dysfunction is the fuel that drives the new musical Grey Gardens, based on the lives of two relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (an aunt and a first cousin, both named Edith Bouvier Beale) as depicted in a 1975 documentary about their reclusive lives in a once-grand Long Island seaside mansion. The show connects two moments in time — a glamorous summer party in 1941 and a scene of repellent, flea-infested deterioration in 1973 — to reveal how parent-child relationships form, evolve and disintegrate.
Grey Gardens was an unlikely Broadway hit in 2005; Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC) has opened its 2008-09 season with its regional premiere. In Act One, Big Edie (Neva Rae Powers) is preparing for her daughter’s engagement party; Little Edie (Ashley Kate Adams) is about to announce her marriage plans with Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (Charlie Clark), the eldest son of the Kennedy clan. But Big Edie’s larger-than-life personality has a way of holding center stage, especially by singing, whether invited or not. Big Edie also specializes in sabotaging Little Edie’s romances, which she achieves late in Act One, resulting in Little Edie’s apparent departure.
In Act Two, however, we see that Little Edie (now played by Powers) never really escaped. She returned home when her own plans for independence dissolved and three decades later is an eccentric caretaker for her equally deranged mother (portrayed in Act Two by Dale Hodges). They are oblivious to the horrid conditions that have overtaken their lives, consumed by arguments and rivalries, petty outrages and conflicts with neighbors.
Brian c. Mehring’s design for the dilapidated mansion is as eccentric as Grey Gardens’ characters, with a peaked roof and windows at a 45-degree angle. The second-act clutter should be more pronounced and horrifying, but it certainly reflects the Beales’ downward spiral.
Grey Gardens’ book is by Doug Wright, a writer drawn to odd characters. (He previously wrote I Am My Own Wife, a hit for ETC in 2005.) Scott Frankel’s varied score and Michael Korie’s lyrics offer the jaunty quality of blue-blood life in pre-World War II America in Act One, in addition to capturing several odd moments from the 1975 documentary — particularly “The Revolutionary Costume for Today” and “Jerry Likes My Corn.” Act Two also ironically reprises “The Girl Who Has Everything” from Act One. Paired with “Around the World,” these two songs have a poignant emotional depth that reflects the hot-and-cold connections between the two women.
Powers plays daughter then mother with aplomb; she’s more narrow in Act One, reveling in the novelty numbers (like “Hominy Grits” and “Two Peas in a Pod”) she plans to use to entertain guests, despite everyone’s objections. In Act Two, she blossoms in the more comic role of the off-kilter Little Edie, age 56, dressing in bizarre combinations of ill-fitting garments (“It’s not what you wear, it’s how you wear it,” she announces) and talking non-stop about her thwarted theatrical career and love life. Powers (who audiences loved in 2007 in ETC’s Souvenir) is an accomplished, varied performer.
Adams blends young Edie’s headstrong willfulness and eccentricity, laying the foundation for the character’s evolution as a full-blown nutcase in Act Two, in addition to establishing the ebb and flow of emotion between mother and daughter. (Adams is a musical theater major at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music; interestingly, the role of Little Edie was originated by Sara Gettelfinger, a 1999 CCM grad.)
Hodges, a veteran actress known for her powerful dramatic work (she was morphine-addled Mary Tyrone in Cincinnati Shakespeare’s staging of Long Day’s Journey Into Night a few months ago), proves she can hold her own as a singer, too. She’s both amusing and frightening as the aged Big Edie, still a force who dominates those around her.
Director D. Lynn Meyers has a solid supporting cast: Clark has the charm to be a Kennedy and the skill to play the simple-minded handyman Jerry in Act Two. Greg Hudson is Big Edie’s starchy and disapproving father (he calls his middle-aged daughter “pitiable … an actress without a stage”); Olivia Catherine Diehl and Ellen Ehrsam are the youthful Bouvier cousins, Lee and Jackie (the latter grew up to be Jackie Kennedy). Music Director Scot Woolley plays George Gould Strong, Big Edie’s gay friend, a composer, pianist and hanger-on.
On opening night, with just a few hours to rehearse, Ken Early stepped into the role of Brooks, a servant, filling in for another actor. (He performed valiantly, carrying a clipboard with his lines.) This last-minute replacement affected the timing of the cast and drained energy from the first performance, but I expect the production’s balance to return quickly because of the strength of its core cast. Grey Gardens is about lives gone off the tracks: The two women’s existence is full of clutter and the inescapable presence of one another. It’s a scary — and entertaining — proposition.
GREY GARDENS, presented by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Sept. 28. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.
PHOTO: SANDY UNDERWOOD
Dale Hodges (left) and Neva Rae Powers are mother and daughter caught in a destructive, dependent relationship in Grey Gardens.