Just in time for the holidays comes a wonderful gift from Broadway: Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens. Starring in the Broadway production, the delightful diva gives the most exquisitely crafted performance seen on the Great White Way this season. Playing dual roles, as a mother in Act One and a daughter in Act Two, she brings levels of grace and depth to her performance that are rarely, if ever seen on stage.
Grey Gardens tells the story of the Beales – a well-to-do family connected with the Kennedys. Based on a documentary made in 1975, the story centers around Big and Little Edie, mother and daughter. Both are eccentric, and both are elegantly performed by Ebersole – as the mother in Act One, and the daughter in Act Two.
The first act introduces the audience to the Beales the day of the engagement party of Little Edie to Joe Kennedy. Candid scenes of the drawing room show that this lovely-looking family is anything but – they are simply struggling to maintain an outward façade of normalcy. The mother loves to sing, and the daughter is embarrassed by the displays and exhibitions. The husband is noticeably absent. The grandfather just wants to play golf, and the two young cousins are too innocent to notice all that is wrong in their family home.
The cocktails that are downed and the quips that are exchanged are much stronger than one would expect, and Little Edie is desperate to escape this. The socialite of the season, a well-known debutante nicknamed Body Beautiful Beale, she is eager for the escape she can make by marrying the blue-blooded Kennedy’s. Her mother, however, is not. Big Edie is dealt a double blow that day, being disinherited by her father and divorced by her husband. Struggling to retain her family, she wishes her daughter would stay at home. Instead, she is then abandoned by Little Edie’s flee for independence.
Flash forward a few decades and the audience is shown Grey Gardens in a different light – literally. The family home that was once decorated in tasteful shades of beige is now draped in dismal shades of grey. Little Edie has returned home to care for her bed-ridden mother and the two live in a state of solitude and squalor, alone except for raccoons, cats and occasional visits from the neighborhood by a boy named Jerry. Little Edie is desperate to return to New York where, as she constantly mentions, she was forging a future before beckoned home to care for her mother. Big Edie defends herself, saying that she would have been all alone without her daughter. The woman argue and fight non-stop, bemoaning their sad, sad states; Little Edie lamenting her lack of career and failure to marry, and her lack of future, so long as her mother is alive.
The on-stage relationships between the leading ladies are outstanding. As mother and daughter, Ebersole and Erin Davie accomplish real honesty and affection as well as the frustration and discontent. When singing the first song they ever performed together, the inappropriately titled “Two Peas In a Pod,” one can’t help but smile. When Edie says, “Mother, I love you,” there is no doubt that she means it. In the second act, when Ebersole plays Little Edie and Mary Louise Wilson steps into the mother’s shoes, it only improves. The two women are vibrant, with each barb and spat that comes from their moths inducing laughter, but managing to maintain sincerity as well.
Humor that comes from family situations is often double-edged, with anger and sadness lurking beneath the laughter. Producing something that is truly funny is often difficult, and Grey Gardens is no stranger to that. This humor comes at a cost – the cost of a family name as well as a family home. Once considered American royalty, the only thing the Beales rule now are raccoons.
The leading ladies share their stage and they do so generously with the supporting cast. As Edie’s “soul mate,” Bob Still man provides a deliciously cynical George Gould Strong, Edie’s live in pianist and friend. John Mc Martin is delightful as J. V. “Major” Bouvier, doubling as Noman Vincent Peale in the second act. His craggy conservatism and faith in the institution of marriage provide a sharp contrast to his free-thinking daughter. And Matt Cavenaugh does a spot-on imitation of Joe Kennedy, providing fresh-faced youthful optimism, doubling to deliver a nervous, aloof Jerry in the second act.
And then there is Christine. Her performance is heart-breakingly beautiful. In the maternal ballad, “Will You” her desperate love for her daughter and fear of herself is so nakedly apparent on her face that it is impossible not to feel sympathy for this woman, however difficult it may be. Her comedic skills are also put to use, when, As Little Edie, she sports eccentric outfits and delivers lines such as, “I don’t know how someone can manage to eat and find a husband. I could just die.” When she sings her hauntingly beautiful rendition of “Another Winter in a Summer Town,” plotting her escape from the prison of Grey Gardens, her insanity echoes with defiant innocence. Never has a woman evoked so much comedy and compassion in the same performance.
This show is more than a story about the downfall of an American family. It is also a commentary on the patriarchy of America and the desperation of people to maintain a proper public image. The light-hearted melody “Marry Well” may induce toe-tapping, but the sentiment of the lyrics is decidedly aged. Comparing Little Edie of the first act and Little Edie of the second, it is difficult to decide who is happier.
“Oh, how the mighty have fallen,” we are fond of saying about the once-wealthy and famous. It is doubtful that statement will apply to Ebersole any time soon.