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September 11, 2012 > Theatre Review: Real life mother daughter tale intrigues and entertains

Theatre Review: Real life mother daughter tale intrigues and entertains

By Julie Grabowski
Photos By Terry Sullivan

Douglas Morrisson Theatre continues to delve into the murky waters of family relations with the third production in their Family Portraits series. Based on the 1975 documentary film "Grey Gardens," Doug Wright's musical of the same name relies on fact and fiction to tell the story of mother and daughter socialites who decline into reclusiveness and poverty, spending their days in a decaying house overrun with cats, raccoons, fleas, and garbage.

We first meet the women in the affluent Beale household, a 28-room estate called Grey Gardens, in East Hampton, Long Island, in July 1941. Edith Bouvier Beale presides over party plans for her daughter and namesake, Little Edie, who is engaged to Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. and gladly on her way out of Grey Gardens and into a life of her own.

Little Edie is embarrassed and plagued by the star antics of her songstress mother, who takes any opportunity to do a number, and whose outlandish behavior is blamed for driving previous suitors away. Edith's own father rebuffs her by saying she was raised to be a lady but has become "an actress without a stage." Be that as it may, while Little Edie's life is opening up, Edith is facing the diminishing of her own: the loss of her daughter, live-in friend and accompanist Gould, as well as her husband. She only wants things to remain the same, to be safe and serene together.

The situation is perfectly summed up by Gould: "those on the outside clamoring to get in, those on the inside dying to get out." Little Edie envisions herself on Broadway or in the movies, while Joe's eyes are on the White House. Big dreams are afoot, but Major Bouvier's advice to his granddaughters is simple and singular. In the song "Marry Well" he urges them not to end up spinsters or dilettantes, but "marry well and you're well on your way." Well on their way to what exactly is never made clear.

Mother and daughter are found 32 years later right where they began; the flowering vines climbing the garden lattices are now dead, the windows are dirty and patched, the floor is rough, the fine furniture gone. Little Edie, now in her 50's, is still thinking about escaping to New York, but muses "when you live off mother, you can't be free."

"Grey Gardens" is a rich and fascinating story with so many levels and things to ponder about the tricky nature of dreams and devotion and the sometimes terrible bonds of love. The most interesting thing is that the women are very much aware of their situation and the judgments of the outside world, yet show no shame or embarrassment or thoughts of improvement. They have an admirable self-possession and spirit that stands out amid the odd fashion choices and questionable meals.

The cast carries the weight of the material well with the second act proving the more interesting and dynamic of the two. There is plenty of humor despite the rock bottom living style, but the longing and loss Little Edie feels is inescapable, and beautifully and heartrendingly expressed in "Around the World" and "Another Winter in a Summer Town."

Jenifer Tice is absolutely magnetic in her dual roles as Edith Bouvier Beale and Little Edie. She fully embodies her characters and lives confidently and convincingly in their skins. Tice is clearly the standout, but has a wonderful compliment in Chris Macomber as the older Edith. The two are a well-matched duo in perfect sync.

Melissa Heinrich's beautiful, strong voice is undeniable, but her performance as Young Little Edie is too obviously a performance, with unvarying bright vocal inflections and a perpetual smile that is off-putting. It is only at the end of the song "Daddy's Girl" toward the bottom of the first act that the phony feeling begins to break and Heinrich is more natural and relatable.

Alexander Murphy is a solid Joe, but really makes his mark with his second role as Jerry, Edith's young friend who lends the women a helping hand. His slow and loose Jerry is wonderful and spot on, and while Murphy's accent as Joe is an indefinable one that comes and goes, he nails Jerry's Boston roots.

Really it is only the squalid and isolated living conditions that set the Beales apart from the rest of us. They live their lives with common demons: loss of love, disappointed dreams, family disapproval, duty, guilt, the fear of being alone. And yet amid that heavy load, genuine love and an irrepressible spirit of life makes an indelible mark on all who witness it.

"Grey Gardens" runs through September 30 with a post-play discussion to be held after the Saturday matinee on September 22. Tickets are $20 for the 2 p.m. Saturday matinee, and $28 for Thursday through Sunday performances. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (510) 881-6777 or visit online at

Grey Gardens
September 6 - 30
8 p.m., 2 p.m. matinees
Douglas Morrisson Theatre
22311 N. Third St., Hayward
(510) 881-6777
Tickets: $20 - $28

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