Free spirits or basket cases? Pathetic victims or fab fashion icons?
There is a wide variance of opinion about the late recluse Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her outrageously quirky daughter, also named Edith.
Both women, born to privilege and close relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, have passed on. But their insta-celebrity outlives them. Since being “discovered” in the 1970s, living in impoverished squalor with dozens of cats, they’ve been immortalized several times over.
The Beales starred as themselves in a riveting 1975 film documentary by Albert and David Maysles. Later came a 2009 made-for-TV movie about them, with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. And in 2006, a wryly offbeat musical on the Beales reached Broadway.
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All three are titled “Grey Gardens,” after the crumbling, 28-room East Hampton mansion the beyond-eccentric twosome shared — the control-freak matriarch known as “Big Edie” and her oddball-with-elan offspring, “Little Edie.”
The Beales resurface in the Seattle premiere of the musical “Grey Gardens,” which starts previews at ACT Theatre this week in an ACT-5th Avenue Theatre coproduction.
Scripted by Doug Wright (“I Am My Own Wife”), with a score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, this unusual tuner’s Seattle stand rekindles the debate over whether the Beales have been exploited objects of voyeuristic fascination. Or symbols of an eroding, misogynistic American aristocracy. Or just great high camp entertainment — “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” crossed with “Mommie Dearest,” with undertones of Edith Wharton.
At ACT, much of the burden of making Big Edie and Little Edie more than laughable grotesques will be shouldered by esteemed Seattle actors Suzy Hunt and Patti Cohenour.
Cohenour actually plays both women in the show. In Act 1, set in 1941, she is the flamboyant singer-society matron Big Edie, sabotaging her pretty daughter’s chances of marrying dashing suitors like Joe Kennedy Jr. In Act 2, 30 years later, she’s middle-aged Little Edie, modeling makeshift ensembles of turbans and bathing suits, feeding pet cats and raccoons, dreaming of song-and-dance stardom while holed up in a shared bedroom with her domineering invalid mother (then played by Hunt).
“To me these women are not Halloween characters,” says the affable Cohenour, a Broadway regular when she’s not home in Gig Harbor. “The director (Kurt Beattie) and I’ve talked about how these women weren’t tragic, but survivors. In the middle of all that mayhem and filth, they found some happiness.”
Cohenour calls them “codependent,” and considers the mercurial Little Edie, who at times got “all spun up” with rage, mentally ill. “I think it’s unspoken that Big Edie knows her daughter is schizophrenic, or fears she is. She kept her close because she didn’t want to grow old alone, but also to protect her daughter from being in a marriage as repressive and miserable as her own was.” (Big Edie, who also bore two sons, was divorced by her conservative lawyer husband, and was left with Grey Gardens but no alimony to maintain it.)
The Beales’ cult fandom persists. The site www.greygardensonline.com is a trove of memorabilia about them. A diary kept by 11-year old Little Edie was published. Videos of her failed stab at a singing career after Big Edie’s death and clips of her dishing on the Bouviers, Kennedys, et al, are on YouTube. And on the Logo network’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” last month, Seattle performer Jinkx Monsoon (aka Jerick Hoffer) played Little Edie in drag.
Cohenour drew her characterizations mainly from the Maysles’ documentary. “There’s a lot of dialogue in the show that comes right out of the film,” she notes.
“It also helped me get the meter, the tone and pitch of the voices. You can’t just do your own thing here. The words you’re speaking actually came from the lips of these women. I really want to capture them, and their reality as human beings.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org