Gardens of grey may seem like a misnomer, but how apt it was for a dark and unsettling chapter in American high society history.
A mansion located in affluent East Hampton, N.Y., Grey Gardens in its grand heyday was the home of the Bouvier Beales, the elder Edith (“Big Edie”) and her daughter, “Little Edie.” Also frequent familiars in this domicile of wealth and privilege were Little Edie’s young cousins, Jacqueline and Lee. We would know them later as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Princess Lee Radziwill. The fractious relationship between Edith and Little Edie, one poisoned by jealousy and resentment and twisted rivalry, eventually turned the seemingly idyllic household upside down and submerged it into the mire until all that was left were two reclusive, lonely women sharing a roof in utter squalor.
A 1975 documentary by the Maysles brothers about the two women became a 2006 musical written by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, with a book by Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife). It’s a strangely inscrutable exercise in musical theater with auto-wreck undertones: You know the fate of these two women is painful to watch, yet you can’t look away.
Ion Theatre’s new production of Grey Gardens, directed by Kim Strassburger, is that kind of arresting. Besides a gifted cast fronted by Linda Libby (playing mother in Act 1 and daughter in Act 2) and Annie Hinton (as Big Edie in the second act), Grey Gardens enjoys a score that is both amusing in a black-humor way (“The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” “Jerry Likes My Corn”) and heart-breaking (“The Girl Who Has Everything,” Will You” and “Another Winter in a Summer Town”). Its peripheral characters, too, make the most of every moment on ion’s black box stage, from Ruff Yeager as the booze-swilling, piano-playing George Gould Strong to Charles Evans, whose slacker-boy Jerry is a highlight of Act 2.
The trappings and doings at the mansion ooze opulence and preciousness in Act 1, in spite of the limitations of the tiny stage, before turning to something out of a pathetic reality show about the fallen rich in Act 2. An unlikely story for a musical, you’re thinking? Not here, where the denouement is as harrowing as a tragic opera.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat