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Grey Gardens
Book by Doug Wright, Music by Scott Frankel, Lyrics by Michael Korie
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
Max & Louie Productions
July 9, 2016

Debby Lennon, Madeline Purches, Terry Meddows Photo by Dan Donovan Max & Louie Productions

Debby Lennon, Madeline Purches, Terry Meddows
Photo by Dan Donovan
Max & Louie Productions

Grey Gardens, the offbeat musical based on a cult-hit 1975 documentary about two reclusive relatives of Jackie Kennedy’s, is making its St. Louis debut with a presentation by the ambitious Max & Louie Productions. Although the source material was also made into an HBO movie in 2009, I don’t think audiences need to be familiar with the story to enjoy this stunning, memorable production. The top-notch production values, ideal casting, and thoughtful direction makes this a show that should intrigue audiences regardless of whether they have seen either of the films.

I can make the above statement with some authority since, while I had heard of the films, I had never seen either before seeing this production. I had heard a few of the songs before, but aside from that and from knowing a little bit about the story on which the films and show are based, I went into this production with a fresh perspective, and I’m glad that this excellent production could be my introduction to the show. It’s the story of a mother and daughter–Jacqueline Kennedy’s aunt Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter “Little Edie” Beale, who were at the height of New England society in the first part of the 20th Century, but by the 1970s had become reclusive and lived together surrounded by clutter and cats in their once-grand mansion, Grey Gardens, The show’s two acts show the audience their existence at two important eras of their lives, the 1940’s and the 1970s. Debby Lennon plays “big” Edith in the 1940s and older “Little” Edie in the 1970s, with Donna Weinsting playing “Big” Edith in the 70s and Madeline Purches playing the younger “Little” Edie in the 40s.  It’s a depiction of these women’s close but volatile relationship and the eccentricities of both.

In a way, this is almost two plays, although Act 2 is essentially dependent on Act 1 as background. Act 1 shows Edith Bouvier Beale in her prime, as she holds court in her palatial mansion planning an engagement party for Edie and her fiance’, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. (Will Bonfiglio), although despite her daughter’s wishes, Edith intends to make the party more of a concert with herself as the star, accompanied by her ever-present pianist, George Gould Shaw (Terry Meddows). While Edie and Joe hope for the future, Edith lives in a somewhat deluded version of the present, where her ever absent husband is just “too busy” to be around, although she clings to the hope that he will be there to attend the party. The future is also represented by Edith’s young nieces Jackie (Phoebe Desilets) and Lee (Carter Eiseman) who are encouraged to “Marry Well” and fit into society by their domineering grandfather, Edith’s father J.V. “Major” Bouvier (Tom Murray). All the grand plans don’t go entirely as planned, however, and the result of what happens is seen in Act 2, where the mother and daughter are still living in the shell of a mansion and “Little” Edie clearly resents being tied to her mother, who has turned her attentions to the cats and to a hippie-ish young man named Jerry (also Bonfiglio) while the ghosts of the 1940s characters remain as a chorus of echoes from the past. It’s a difficult play to describe, and I don’t want to say too much so as to spoil it, but there’s a lot to see here and this wonderful cast makes it fascinating to watch.

The music ranges from more classical to more popular sounding songs, and the lead part of Act 1 Edith/Act 2 Little Edie is a demanding one, in terms of acting as well as musically. Fortunately, this production has the marvelous Debby Lennon, who gives a commanding performance, holding court as the imperious Edith in the 1940s and as the resentful, regretful, offbeat Little Edie of the 70s. There’s a suggestion of emotional/mental challenges for both women, although Edith seems much more assured in Act 1, trying to control the life of her only daughter, the excellent Purches as the desperately ambitious young Little Edie. In Act 2, when Lennon becomes the haunted, erratic older version of Little Edie, the superb Weinsting takes over as a sadder but not necessarily wiser Edith. Mother and daughter in Act 2 have a caustic, if dependent, relationship, and this is expertly played by both actresses and staged well by director Annamaria Pileggi, as silence and deliberation becomes as important in communication as the speaking. There are also strong performances from Meddows as the jaded, snarky pianist Gould, Murray as the affable but domineering Major Bouvier, and Desilets and Eiseman in winning performances as the young Jackie and Lee Bouvier. Bonfiglio and Omega Jones are also memorable in dual roles–Bonfiglio as the ambitious Joe Kennedy and as the sweet slacker Jerry, and Jones as the Beale’s butler Brooks in the first act, and as his son the groundskeeper Brooks, Jr. in the second. The whole ensemble is excellent, working together well and presenting the material with clarity, ably supporting Lennon and Weinsting, whose performances are the anchor of this production.

The production values here are first rate, with a meticulously detailed set by Dunsi Dai that allows is appropriately luxurious in the first act, and then dressed down in Act 2 to show the mansion’s state of disrepair. There are also colorful, ideally suited costumes by Jennifer JC Krajicek and hair and wig design by Emma Bruntrager , highlighting the high style of the rich elites in the first act, and reflecting more eccentric personal styles of the Edies in the second. Michael Sullivan’s lighting is used to excellent effect to help set the scene and tone of each era.

The overall tone of this piece is melancholy, with shades of lost hope, regret, and emotional dependence. Still, these are truly formidable women regardless of their circumstances, and their story is vividly portrayed here. Max & Louie’s shows are always memorable, and this one is no exception. It’s an extraordinary work of theatre, not to be missed.

Donna Weinsting, Will Bonfiglio Photo by Dan Donovan Max & Louie Productions

Donna Weinsting, Will Bonfiglio
Photo by Dan Donovan
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Production  is presenting Grey Gardens in the Wool Studio Theatre the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until December 23, 2015.

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