Review: Grey Gardens
Featuring theatre practitioners at the height of their powers, The Production Company’s Grey Gardens caps off 2011 as a must-see theatrical event.
Since the landmark 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, the mythology of the Bouvier-Beales of East Hampton, NY, has proved endlessly fascinating. To the landscape of further documentaries, movies and plays came this Broadway musical in 2006. With act two virtually recreating the documentary, the masterstroke of the piece is the addition of a fictional act one. Set 32 years earlier, act one eerily foreshadows the mental and physical decay that was to take hold of this gilded world.
Although the cast of nine are an embarrassment of riches, the evening belongs to Pamela Rabe and Nancye Hayes, whose meticulously crafted, incredibly accomplished performances will be remembered for many years to come.
Rabe has the tour de force twin roles of matron-on-the-edge Edith Bouvier Beale in 1941 and her unhinged daughter ‘Little’ Edie Beale in 1973. The opening minutes alone are a test that would undo a lesser performer as Rabe has to speak in ‘Little’ Edie’s voice in the prologue while in full costume as Edith. Rabe goes on to play Mrs Beale as a grand dame of a Tennessee Williams drama, a preening steel magnolia whose desperate fear of loneliness is bubbling only just beneath the glossy surface.
This achievement would be sufficient for a regular production, but it is Rabe’s giddily gleeful turn as ‘Little’ Edie that propels the performance into the stuff of legends. The pseudo-documentary style sees the audience taken into the confidence of the gushing, deluded and cripplingly paranoid Edie. Dressed in a range of her finest creations, Rabe not only nails Edie’s speech patterns and facial expressions but also uses full expression of body language as she contorts herself into Edie’s awkward demeanour. Her breathless, ludicrously self-conscious rendition of the patriotic number “The House We Live In” is simply amazing.
Hayes is glimpsed momentarily in the prologue when, in one of director Roger Hodgman’s numerous supremely deft touches, cantankerous Edith segues into her younger self. Practically unrecognizable, Hayes’ physical transformation to Edith has to be seen to be believed. That she has imbued an essentially unsympathetic character with an undercurrent of endearing warmth is just one of her many accomplishments. Hayes and Rabe are a spellbinding pair, and, despite the depressing subject matter, the audience could have happily watched them for hours.
James Millar is sublime as Edith’s fey pianist and confidante George Gould Strong, nailing every laugh with flair and singing with a mellifluous tone. Alex Rathgeber achieves two completely distinct characterisations as golden boy Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr, Edie’s fiancé, and neighbourhood teen Jerry, helpful handman to Edith.
Liz Stiles makes an impressive TPC debut, looking elegant and gracious, but increasingly tortured, as Young ‘Little’ Edie. Her voice is well matched to the older Edie and she fortunately has the chance to sing beautifully in act two as Sister Marla in the inspirational choral number “Choose To Be Happy”. John O’May gives a subtle performance in what could be the overblown role of Edith’s father J. V. ‘Major’ Beale. The quiet fury the patriarch unleashes on his superficial but well meaning daughter creates an air of genuine discomfort.
Solid support in the dual roles of butler, Brooks, Sr and gardener, Brooks, Jr is given by the effortlessly suave Bert LaBonte (by this stage of reading, it will be clear what was meant by describing the cast as an embarrassment of riches). Ariel Kaplan and Caitlin Vippond are utterly charming as Edie’s cousins Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ and Lee Bouvier. (Vippond shares the role with Alice McDonald and Lucy-Rose Coyne) Both girls sing clearly and strongly, and dance with flair.
The masterful touch of Hodgman is stamped all over the production. Acting, accents and stage action seem the result of a vastly longer rehearsal process. The scope of the staging suits the more intimate Playhouse perfectly. As with all other Production Company shows, the band are on stage but the two interior set pieces, large carpeted floor space and furniture give an attractive, more than sufficiently staged feel. Fleur Thiemeyer’s costumes befit a fully produced season, with Edith and Edie’s engagement party gowns and all of Edie’s inane eyesores in act two being highlights. Dana Jolly’s witty, period perfect choreography is performed with aplomb by the cast.
Bravo to The Production Company for having the courage to stage Grey Gardens, given that it does not fit the pattern of well known, big cast classics. Within the confines of limited run shows this is a five star production and should not be missed by all fans of musical theatre.
Grey Garden continues at the Playhouse, the Arts Centre until 4 December 2011.
Photos: Jeff Busby