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‘Grey Gardens’ takes audiences on a poignant riches-to-rags journey

  • Written by Deborah Stone
It’s not often that audiences are treated to a true tour de force performance. But, in the Seattle debut of the musical, “Grey Gardens,” they get two for the price of one –Tony Award nominee Patti Cohenour and her co-star, well-known Seattle actress Suzy Hunt.

These talented women are powerhouse actresses, who make their indelible mark on highly challenging roles. The show, a coproduction of the 5th Avenue and ACT theatres, is based on the fascinating 1970s documentary that revealed the lives of the late recluse, Edith Bouvier Beale, “Big Edie,” and her quirky, eccentric daughter, also named Edith or “Little Edie.”

The Beales, who were born to a life of privilege, were close relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy. They resided in a 28-room East Hampton mansion called Grey Gardens, which, in its heyday in the 1940s, was the epitome of opulence.

Years later, however, mother and daughter were discovered living amid impoverished squalor in the now crumbling house. At the heart of this riches-to-rags story is the dysfunctional, codependent relationship between the two Edies.

Hints to this difficult pairing are given early on in Act I when the younger Edie (Jessica Skerritt), a lovely, spirited debutante, is upset with her mother’s plans to sing at her engagement party. She is afraid that her showoff mother will upstage her at this special event when all eyes should be on her and her betrothed, the debonair Navy pilot, Joe Kennedy Jr. (Matt Owen).

Big Edie makes matters worse when she tells Joe some stories about her daughter, painting her in a scandalous light and giving Joe reason to reconsider and ultimately break the engagement.

Distraught and angry, Little Edie leaves for New York City to try and live her life independently, while pursuing her dreams of making it big in show biz.

In Act 2, we find mother and daughter living together once again, but this time the state of their domicile is quite different. After years of neglect, Grey Gardens is in shambles – a vermin infected pit, crawling with fleas, cats and even a raccoon.

Big Edie, now an elderly invalid, is reliant on her daughter for her basic needs, yet she continues to be a domineering, difficult presence, constantly bickering and carping at Little Edie.

Meanwhile, Little Edie has retreated into a world of her own, passing the time modeling odd makeshift outfits and tending to the pet cats, while dreaming of stardom. Both women suffer from delusions, as they both believe they were destined for fame.

Actress Patti Cohenour does double duty in the show, assuming the role of Big Edie in the first act and Little Edie in the second. She fully embodies both of these complex characters and manages to make them human, allowing audiences to see the women as survivors and not merely tragic symbols.

In her hands, the Edies are real people, not grotesque caricatures from some Gothic novel. Big Edie is a flamboyant figure, a high society matron, but underneath, she is a repressed and miserable woman who doesn’t want to grow old alone.

Little Edie shows distinct signs of mental illness, with her mercurial personality and tendency to engage in sporadic rants and rages. Though she feels the urge to escape her stifling existence, she can’t because she is scared, insecure and unable to effectively cope in the outside world. The responsibility she feels towards her mother exacts its own sentence, entrapping her into the role of eternal caretaker. Suzy Hunt gives an equally compelling performance as the aging Big Edie, a bedridden woman, who despite being physically crippled, is still able to exert power and control over her daughter. Hunt shows her character’s strength, yet also her vulnerability and fear, which dictates her often extreme behavior.

Hunt and Cohenour are joined by a solid cast of actor/singers, who take on different roles throughout the production. Of special note are Seattle theater mainstays Jessica Skerritt, as Little Edie in the first act, and Allen Fitzpatrick as Major Bouvier and Norman Vincent Peale. As to the music, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie assemble a wonderful mix of vintage-like Broadway tunes, anthems and ballads that elicit a wide array of emotions from humor to heart wrenching pathos.

Kudos go to the musicians, who do an exemplary job from their hidden locale, and Matthew Smucker, who should be applauded for his creative pop-up sets. “Grey Gardens” is a unique, well-staged and skillfully produced musical that takes audiences on an unforgettable journey.

“Grey Gardens” runs through June 2nd at ACT – A Contemporary Theatre - in Seattle. For ticket information, contact ACT ticket office at: (206) 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org, or The 5th Avenue box office at: (206) 625-1900 or www.5thavenue.org.

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